‘The Passenger’ is Cormac McCarthy’s first novel in 16 years



Now that 89-year-old Cormac McCarthy is widely hailed as one of our greatest living authors, it’s hard to remember that when he published “All the Pretty Horses” in 1992, few people were waiting for it. Although McCarthy had been writing for decades, his work — including the epic western “Blood Meridian” — was still largely the secret treasure of a small retinue of intense fans.

Inconspicuousness suited the author just fine, but like every fragile thing in the McCarthy universe, it would soon die.

“All the Pretty Horses,” the first volume of his Border trilogy, flirted with the bestseller list for months and then went on to win the National Book Award for fiction. McCarthy did not attend the New York ceremony to accept his prize, but the damage was done: He was becoming famous.

Nothing, though, could have prepared the author for the clamorous success of “The Road,” which extended his apocalyptic themes to the literal end of civilization. This lean story about a father and his little boy walking through a hellscape mesmerized — and terrified — readers. The novel won a Pulitzer Prize, which made perfect sense, but it also won a spot on Oprah’s Book Club, which felt like a rip in the space-time continuum because it meant McCarthy would, for the first time, give an interview on TV. There, finally, we saw the shy, gentle writer, not so much disdainful of public adoration as inert to it.

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For the last 16 years, McCarthy’s swelling fan base has been circling, picking at crumbs of information about his next project. This month, the moment of unveiling has arrived with a tempest of publicity that’s sure to draw in even more readers.

“The Passenger” exhibits McCarthy’s signature markings, but it’s a different species than we’ve spotted before. In these pages, the author’s legendary violence has been infinitely reduced to the clash of subatomic particles.

Bobby Western, the novel’s contemplative, haunted hero, works as a salvage diver. We meet him at 3:17 a.m. off the Gulf Coast. He and a small crew are examining a private jet resting on the ocean floor. After his partner cuts open the door with an underwater torch, Western swims into this fresh tomb:

“He kicked his way slowly down the aisle above the seats, his tanks dragging overhead. The faces of the dead inches away,” McCarthy writes. “The people sitting in their seats, their hair floating. Their mouths open, their eyes devoid of speculation.”

A few minutes later, back in the inflatable boat, Western shakes his head. “There’s nothing about this that rattles right.” The bodies look unaffected by a crash. And the pilot’s flight bag and the data box are missing from the cockpit.

Western’s partner asks, “You think there’s already been somebody down there, don’t you?”

For several days, Western hears nothing in the news about a jet crashing into the Gulf. Then two men with badges appear at his apartment in New Orleans. They want to know how many bodies he saw in the plane because “there seems to be a passenger missing.”

McCarthy has assembled all the chilling ingredients of a locked-room mystery. But he leaps outside the boundaries of that antique form just as he reworked the apocalypse in “The Road.” Indeed, “The Passenger” sometimes feels more reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” Western knows he’s suspected of something, but he’s not told what. The two men who repeatedly question him never drop their formal politeness — never flash a bolt gun like Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” — but Western knows that his life is in danger and that he must run.

First, though, he ruminates, and that sustained rumination creates a very different novel than the heart-thumping thriller the opening suggests. Instead, we’re drawn deeper and deeper into the troubled soul of Bobby Western. His father worked with Robert Oppenheimer to create the first atomic bombs, and Western still labors under a kind of genetic guilt for unleashing such horror on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In a futile attempt to come to terms with that legacy and other ghosts, Western chats with a collection of barflies who seem to have wandered in from other classics. There’s Debussy Fields, a trans woman doing an extravagant imitation of Brett Ashley from “The Sun Also Rises.” And there’s Sheddan, who sounds like he never recovered from playing Falstaff in a college production of “Henry IV.”

“A pox upon you,” he says. “You see in me an ego vast, unstructured, and baseless. But in all candor I’ve not even the remotest aspirations to the heights of self-regard which the Squire commands.”

The style — a mingling of profound contemplation and rapid-fire dialogue, always without quotation marks and often without attribution — is pure McCarthy. But so is the irritating tendency toward grandiosity. “Evil has no alternate plan. It is simply incapable of assuming failure,” he writes. “The last of all men who stands alone in the universe while it darkens about him. Who sorrows all things with a single sorrow. Out of the pitiable and exhausted remnants of what was once his soul he’ll find nothing from which to craft the least thing godlike to guide him in these last of days.”

The Book of Job might get away with language like that, and maybe Melville can pull it off on a particularly bleak day, but here it risks sounding comically overwrought.

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Brooding and good-looking, Western “is sinking into a darkness he cannot even comprehend.” Women want to save him; men want to befriend him. And why not? Working as a salvage diver sounds exotic and cool. He earned a scholarship to study physics at Caltech. He used to be a racecar driver in Europe, and he still roars around in his Maserati. (He thinks of the trident symbol on the car’s grill as “Schrödinger’s wavefunction.” Sure.) And — yes, seriously — he lives off thousands of gold coins he found buried under his dead grandmother’s house.

But on the non-sexy side of the ledger, Western is still pining for his little sister, Alice, a mathematical prodigy who wanted to bear his baby. Apparently, during her brief tumultuous life, they shared more than a love of complex equations.

(That shuffling sound you hear is Hollywood directors tiptoeing away.)

One of Western’s friends tries to cast this incestuous relationship in terms of a Greek tragedy, but McCarthy suggests it’s a geek tragedy. Throughout the novel, we’re subjected to intercalary chapters about Alice and a menagerie of Vaudeville freaks who inhabit her psychotic hallucinations. Chief among these figures is the Thalidomide Kid, who torments her in conversations so bizarre and relentless that I began to wish I were on that plane at the bottom of the Gulf.

Weirdly, in early December, McCarthy is releasing a related short novel called “Stella Maris” — the name of a psych hospital — which is composed entirely of dialogue between Alice and a doctor. I doubt there are more than a few hundred people in the country who can follow Alice’s freewheeling allusions to theoretical physics and advanced mathematics — certainly her doctor can’t. But the bigger mystery is why this material, which depends entirely on “The Passenger,” is being published separately.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a mercy. “The Passenger” is already burdened by a reference to space aliens, a conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination and enough scientific arcana to choke a Higgs boson. McCarthy can’t go long without referring to the work of Dirac, Pauli, Heisenberg, Einstein, Rotblat, Glashow, Teller, Bohm, Chew, Feynman and other scientists. Unless you majored in physics, your string theory is going to get badly tangled up with your Yang-Mills. This is the kind of novel in which people wonder, “What happened to Kaluza-Klein?”

Later, we’re told that a Swiss mathematician and physicist named Ernst Stueckelberg “worked out a good bit of the S-Matrix theory and the renormalization group.”

I’m happy to hear that worked out, but I still have no idea what the hell it means.

When McCarthy descends from Mount Olympus and writes in his close, precise voice about Western carving out the ordinary activities of his day, the novel suddenly hums with genuine profundity. But many pages strain self-consciously to explore Big Ideas about the Nature of Reality. The explanations are so cursory that we never get to see the light — just the shadows on the cave wall. Unlike the cerebral novels of Richard Powers, which create the illusion that you might actually understand neuropsychology, genetics or artificial intelligence, “The Passenger” casts readers into a black hole of ignorance.

Near the end, a friend tells Western, “We still dont know what this is about.”

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

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