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Review: 'The Passenger' and 'Stella Maris' by Cormac McCarthy

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on the shelf

Two New Novels by Cormac McCarthy

Knopf: 400 pages, $30

Stella Maris
Knopf: 208 pages, $26
(December 6)

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Bobby Western is a rescue diver, once a physics graduate student who hangs out at dive bars with philosophically inclined bullies and thieves. In New Orleans, it’s 1980 when Bobby’s quiet but dangerous life takes a dangerous turn, igniting Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, “The Passenger.”

“The Passenger” is a brilliant book, a departure from McCarthy’s previous work that still feels a little bit. Set in the real world of the 20th century, but filled with the same lamentation language and dead sentences from his ancient “Border Trilogy” and the apocalyptic future of “The Path.” Her second best-known book won the Pulitzer Prize, was made into a movie, and was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club in 2007, drawing the publicity-shy author into the spotlight. This is her first novel published since then.

The story of an escaped haunted man has McCarthy’s classical language flair, as well as Thomas Pynchon’s pun and paranoia, and last but certainly not least, an extensive history of theoretical physics. “The Traveler” is a dizzying success: for McCarthy to publish work and ambition of this scope in ’89 is extraordinary. But he has a tragic flaw. is it deadly?

One night, Bobby and his diving partner Oiler are sent on a small plane that has sunk deep in the Gulf and discover the black box is missing. So is one of the passengers; the rest are eerily strapped to their underwater seats. When the crashed plane and the dead inside don’t make the news, Bobby begins to worry that they’ve seen something they shouldn’t. He is somewhat interested in finding the missing passenger, but mostly tries to stay hidden.

Bobby moves into a rented room above a local bar that sees a series of residents meet their untimely ends. Bobby doesn’t care – handsome, smart, and possessing a secret stash of dough, Bobby seems to go beyond the concerns of the barfly cohort. Or maybe he likes to pose danger: he was a Formula 2 race car driver before coming to New Orleans. He rarely reveals what’s on his mind.

for book cover

His friend “Long John” Sheddan has to openly tell us “He is in love with his sister”. This is not a spoiler; only 30 pages and Sheddan makes it clear – it’s a somewhat mythological version of the siblings’ relationship that hangs over the rest of the novel, and also McCarthy’s companion novel, “Stella Maris,” is a kind of coda that will be released in December. 6. This volume consists solely of conversations between Bobby’s sister and her psychiatrist in a mental institution. It was first introduced in “The Passenger”. The corpse on the first page is sometimes called Alice and sometimes Alicia and has alternate italic sections.

Alicia is scorchingly brilliant at math, conversing with a collection of utterly beautiful and often third-grade vaudeville hallucinations. Alicia is obsessed with death and her older brother, just as in love with him since she was a teenager. He’s so clever that the theoretical math controversy pushes Bobby to give up for physics, but his romantic obsession with her drives him to suicide.

And we’re sorry. Maybe it doesn’t bother you like it bothers me. Should the core of this book be a love story between an older brother and younger sister? Couldn’t an author with McCarthy’s broad imagination think of a grown, independent woman who could serve as an equally powerful lost love? I realize you’ve been here before – his 1968 novel “Outer Dark” was about brother-sister incest, and of course any novelist can put anything they want into fiction. But the year is 2022. A brother in love with his older sister? It’s not tragic; creepy.

If we can ignore that for a moment – ​​and take a look at the cover, maybe you can’t – the book follows Bobby in New Orleans eating and drinking at classics that still stand, like Tujague’s and Old Absinthe House. Willfully ignores signals that something is wrong. A colleague of mine dies in an underwater accident. His room is searched and his cat disappears. Two FBI guys showed up looking for him often so often that they may be from the mafia or a more mysterious team.

McCarthy turns his key writing skills into two distinct forces: mechanical and theoretical. He deals with the exquisite details of Bobby’s physical world – the sound and feel of an oil rig in a storm, the touch and click of a cigarette machine in a bar, the step-by-step process of removing or digging a bathroom cabinet. and taking away the buried treasure. Meanwhile, Bobby chats with his friends, which includes time, men and women, or Vietnam, or failures, paragraphs and pages of discussion that can be funny, poignant, dirty, and insightful. Sometimes I feel like I’m trapped in the dorm corridor at 1 am with a smart sophomore who is really, really crazy.


“You once said that a moment in time is a contradiction, since nothing motionless can happen. Then it couldn’t be reduced to a brevity that contradicted its own definition,” Long John tells Bobby. “You also suggested that time could be incremental rather than linear. That the concept of infinite divisibility in the world is accompanied by certain problems. A disjointed world, on the other hand, must raise the question of what binds it together.” There are tons of passages like this one, too many puzzles on it for those who like difficult puzzles when reading their fiction.

As someone who has not had any higher mathematics or physics education, I have not always found a foothold in the theoretical discussions here. (I came closer to understanding this kind of math while reading Karen Olsson’s “The Weil Conjectures” 2019.) In “The Passenger,” theoretical physics often comes across as a series of transitions from one scientist to another, and it’s amusingly framed about them. There are biographies. Who proved the last man wrong?

Much of the math and physics discussion comes from both the “Passenger” and “Stella Maris” episodes of Alicia. his speeches vaudeville hallucinations are sadly retro – the main man, the Thalidomide Kid, played his injuries for a laugh; The two characters dress as black-faced lovers. The boy – a name also used by McCarthy for his protagonist in 1985’s “Blood Meridian” – began appearing to Alice during her teenage years and serves as a hectoring guardian. His speech is full of malicious words and puns (“we have lights and delusions”), and his transformation from annoying and obnoxious to ultimately sympathetic points is again similar to McCarthy’s abundant talent.

We see Alicia and Bobby asynchronously visiting their beloved grandmother in Tennessee. Their father, a scientist, worked on the Manhattan Project and met their mother, a local Tennessee beauty, while working at the Y-12 electromagnetic separation plant, which produced enriched uranium for the first atomic bombs. The marriage did not last. And if you’re wondering if your father’s sins were visited upon Western brothers, you’re warming up.

Bobby and Alicia’s narratives run side by side in a cursed spiral. Alicia dies on Page 1, and Bobby’s choices nearly narrow before he can save himself. Pushed from the comforts of New Orleans to an almost wild existence on the road – a journey that is unequal in prose. “He sat with his feet under him in the morning and watched the sunrise. He was fidgeting and red in the smoke, like a matrix of molten iron swinging from a furnace. Cormac McCarthy writes as only Cormac McCarthy could write.

With its sarcastic cast, American sins, view of quantum physics, low life and high ideas, “The Passenger” is an almost perfect book. If only.

Kellogg is a former book editor for The Times. can be found on Twitter @paperhaus.