IIt’s the depth of darkness that scares Bobby Western, the haunted man at the heart of Cormac McCarthy’s extraordinary new novel. Western works as a salvage diver in the Gulf of Mexico, tending to sunken barges and oil rigs in distress. He raises clouds in the clay-colored water and sinks further into the unknown with each weighted step. His colleagues are jaded but experience has taught him to be careful. He asks, “Have you ever bumped into something out there that you didn’t know what it was?”
Published 16 years after the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road, The Passenger looks like a sunken ship; a gorgeous ruin in the form of a hard-boiled noir thriller. McCarthy’s generational saga covers everything from the atomic bomb to the assassination of Kennedy to the principles of quantum mechanics. It’s by turns muscular and tearful, immersive and indulgent. Every novel, said Iris Murdoch, is the wreckage of a perfect idea. This one is huge. There are locked doors and blind turns. It contains skeletons and buried gold.
About 40 feet below the surface, Western explores a downed charter jet. Inside the fuselage, he makes his way through floating detritus and glassy-eyed victims, still strapped in their seats. The plane was carrying eight passengers, but one appears to be missing and the ensuing investigation hints at a government cover-up. Except that it may be a red herring; we are still in the slums of the book. Western’s problems, we realize, are quite closer to home.
McCarthy began working on The Passenger in the mid-1980s, before his career-making Border trilogy; building it piecemeal and revisiting it over the years. It’s no wonder, then, that this family tragedy feels frozen, part of a larger whole and dragging out so many details that it requires a self-proclaimed ‘coda’ – a second novel, Stella Maris, published in November – for complete the story. It is therefore a book without safeguards, an invitation to get lost. We constantly bump into dark objects and wonder what they mean.
Apparently, the narrative sees Western freaking around early ’80s New Orleans, hanging out with locals, trying to outflank its enemies. But it also goes back through the decades, undermining his near-incestuous bond with his suicidal sister, Alicia. Along the way, he presents us with his nightmarish hallucinations: “the Thalidomide Kid and the old lady with the roadkill stole and Bathless Grogan and the dwarves and the Minstrel Show”. Alicia compares these demons to a troupe of terrible artists. They materialize at her bedside whenever she skips her medication.
Prose-wise, McCarthy – now 89 – continues to fire on all cylinders. His writing is powerful, intoxicating, offsetting lush dialogue with stripped-down, lively description. The bonfire leaning in the sea wind; the burning bits of brush hobbling along the beach. As a storyteller, however, I suspect it ends deliberately. This novel unfolds like a great dying fall.
Western and Alicia, we learn, are the children of the bomb. Their father was a renowned nuclear physicist who helped split the atom, leading to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Western, in his youth, himself studied physics. He familiarized himself with protons and quarks, leptons and string theory, but abandoned his vocation for a drifting blue-collar life. Quantum mechanics, he thinks, can only take us so far. “I don’t know if that actually explains anything,” he says. “You cannot illustrate the unknown.”
McCarthy’s interest in physics was fueled by his time as a trustee of the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit research center. Since 2014, he’s largely locked himself in with academics, exploring the limits of science — and probably language, too — only to conclude that no system is perfect. High-concept plots take on water; engineered narratives crumble. And so it is with The Passenger, which plays out as an existential pursuit thriller in the mold of No Country for Old Men before collapsing in on itself. Western can outrun his pursuers but he can’t escape his own story. So he sets off alone into the desert to watch the oil refineries burn in the distance and observe the carpet-colored vipers coiled in the grass at his feet. “The abyss of the past into which the world falls,” he thinks. “Everything disappears as if it never existed.”
What a glorious sunset song from a novel this is. It’s rich and it’s strange, mercurial and melancholic. McCarthy began as the winner of American Manifest Destiny, spinning his tough tales of rapacious white men. He ends his journey, perhaps, like the yellowed undertaker of the time. Come friendly bombs. Come ride the oceans. The old world is dying and probably not before its time, and The Passenger sneaks in to turn off all the lights.