The Passenger, by Cormac McCarthy

Book Review

The Old Absinthe House, one of the venues depicted in the novel. Photo by the author.

Take a deep dive with me to the bottom of The Gulf of Mexico as we explore along with Bobby Western the depths of the human consciousness.

Cormac McCarthy’s, The Passenger starts off with a mystery as Bobby Western, a deep sea salvage diver, explores a downed plane in the Gulf of Mexico off the Mississippi coastline. He and his friend Oiler find the plane submerged under 40 feet of water and all of the passengers onboard are dead and one is missing. Also missing is the black box. This missing passenger is the passenger from the title of the novel but we soon find that that is not what the book is about at all. Bobby is the actual passenger, as are we the readers, following along on Bobby’s journey into darkness.

We follow Bobby into the seedy bars on Bourbon Street in the City of New Orleans and meet a cadre of colorful characters from blue collar workers in the salvage business to street philosophers, transsexuals, race car drivers, mathematicians, physicists, and a Jewish private detective.

This is a novel of intrigue, paranoia, loss, grief and despair. It is also very funny with many moments of dark humor sprinkled throughout.

Bobby Western’s father worked with Oppenheimer on the atomic bomb for which he experiences generational guilt. His sister, Alicia, is a math wizard who is haunted by a crew of imaginary characters emanating from her schizophrenic mind. She is also a great beauty and Bobby is deeply in love with her.

The whole novel has a dreamlike quality to it but never fails to compel the reader to keep turning the pages to see what happens next.

This is perhaps McCarthys swan song and it echos much of his previous work. It is a tribute to a life well lived and a career well made. McCarthy has been compared to Melville, but I see traces of Beckett, and as another reviewer has pointed out, Kafka.

Much has been made of his signature style of no punctuation and a lack of tags for the dialogue. Sometimes one has to go back and reread a section to understand who it is talking. I found that to be true in this novel. But, I think the ambiguity is intentional on McCarthy’s part as it adds to the dreamlike quality of the work. Has written a prequel to this novel which acts as kind of a “coda” to The Passenger. I haven’t read Stella Maris as yet but when I do I expect it to give me a greater understanding of this one.

This book covers the waterfront on a variety of topics. Topics I am sure are McCarthys interests. He weaves them into the story in a very realistic, convincing and entertaining way. Here is a compendium of what his characters talk about or are involved in: Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, a trans-woman, incest, food and wine, schizophrenia, philosophy, particle physics, mathematics, and paranoia.

McCarthy has a prose style that is incomparable to other modern day writers. His descriptions are sublime and memorable. Such as: “ The lamps had come on down Bourbon Street. It had rained earlier and the moon lay in the wet street like a platinum manhole cover.” Or: “…the tide pools stood like spills of blood.” Or: “ …sunrise. It sat swagged and red in the smoke like a matrix of molten iron swung wobbling up out of a furnace.”

All in all a fine read of a much anticipated novel that more than delivers on expectations.





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