The Passenger (Hardcover)
I’m just going to put this out there. It seems that either you are a Cormac McCarthy fan or you are not. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground, fandom-wise. I fall into the first category. I haven’t read everything that he has written, but what I have read I have loved. Five of his novels have been made into movies, most notably No Country For Old Men (2007) and The Road (2009). If you are not familiar with McCarthy’s writing, perhaps you have seen one of these movies. If you have, or if you know Cormac McCarthy’s style, you know that his style is not one of unicorns and fluffy kittens. His writing is gritty and often gut-wrenching. The Passenger is no exception.
Our main character, Bobby Western, is an intriguing man. Through flashbacks we learn that his father was a physicist on the Oppenheimer team and so he deals with residual “atomic guilt”. As a physics and mathematics phenom, Western graduated from several prestigious universities with advanced degrees in mathematics and physics. After college an inheritance allowed him to become a race car driver for several years in Europe. That career ended with an accident that left him in a coma for several months. Oh yes, and he’s in love with his now deceased sister. We’re talking full-on romantic love. And though never consummated (not even a kiss) it is definitely reciprocated. How is that for an intriguing character? And yet, McCarthy is able to make us relate to Bobby Western and really care about his life and circumstances.
Following his racing career and coma, Bobby Western has become a salvage diver. He goes out on a job to bring up a small plane off the coast of Mississippi. Mysteriously, there is a passenger missing from the submerged wreckage. What follows is life-changing for Western: he is essentially canceled by our government and his diving buddy dies under questionable circumstances. While staying one step ahead of the IRS, Bobby Western lives a hand-to-mouth existence on the periphery of society. The book is populated by Bobby’s acquaintances, an eclectic collection of ne’er-do-wells, as he watches his life spin slowly out of control.
The Passenger is so weird that it’s wonderful. Ostensibly, it’s about Bobby’s life after he discovers the mystery of the missing passenger, but it’s so much more. In the weirdest sort of way, the plot was not the point. Instead, it’s a story of love, fate, depression, grief, loss, and loneliness. And the language! I was captivated when I let myself go and just absorbed the language; it’s beautiful. The last 100 pages are like thought provoking poetry, including gems like:
“Everyone is born with the faculty to see the miraculous. You have to choose not to.” and “Wherever you debark was the train’s destination all along.” and
“Suffering is a part of the human condition and must be borne. But misery is a choice.”
Each one of those little brain nuggets is a mantra of merit. Readers who find Cormac McCarthy as depressing or fatalistic may be missing the point. I find his work is gritty, but with the underlying idea that life is tough and exhausting but that the human spirit is indomitable.
Stella Maris is the companion novel to The Passenger. Bobby Western’s sister, Alicia, is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, and these 190 pages is a dialog between Alicia and her psychiatrist. Although not as lyrical or as beautifully written as The Passenger, it’s still a good little read. If you’re going to read both, be sure to start with The Passenger. Without that background, Stella Maris would be very confusing.
These two novels will be Cormac McCarthy’s last, he being nearly 90 years old and in failing health. I hope he’s proud of the great contributions he’s made to modern American literature. I, for one, have enjoyed being a loyal reader and will miss his work. Often emotionally difficult, the themes of perseverance and humanity shine through the tough parts. And what a wordsmith! His word-painted images last long after the last page has been turned. The Passenger ends with Bobby Western in a lonely lighthouse on the coast of Spain. McCarthy ends it beautifully. As one of his characters in The Passenger says, “I might think my life was pretty funny, if I hadnt had to live it.” Well done, and thank you, Cormac McCarthy.
— Luanne Clark
November 2022 Indie Next List
“The Passenger is Cormac McCarthy’s best novel. Not his best since The Road, not his best since The Border Trilogy, not his best since Blood Meridian; his best, ever. It’s an astonishing work of art, and I feel grateful to be alive to read it.”
— John Duvernoy, The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA
NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Road returns with the first of a two-volume masterpiece: The Passenger is the story of a salvage diver, haunted by loss, afraid of the watery deep, pursued for a conspiracy beyond his understanding, and longing for a death he cannot reconcile with God.
A NEW YORK TIMES BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
“McCarthy returns with a one-two punch...a welcome return from a legend." —Esquire
Look for Stella Maris, the second volume in The Passenger series.
1980, PASS CHRISTIAN, MISSISSIPPI: It is three in the morning when Bobby Western zips the jacket of his wet suit and plunges from the Coast Guard tender into darkness. His dive light illuminates the sunken jet, nine bodies still buckled in their seats, hair floating, eyes devoid of speculation. Missing from the crash site are the pilot’s flight bag, the plane’s black box, and the tenth passenger. But how? A collateral witness to machinations that can only bring him harm, Western is shadowed in body and spirit—by men with badges; by the ghost of his father, inventor of the bomb that melted glass and flesh in Hiroshima; and by his sister, the love and ruin of his soul.
Traversing the American South, from the garrulous barrooms of New Orleans to an abandoned oil rig off the Florida coast, The Passenger is a breathtaking novel of morality and science, the legacy of sin, and the madness that is human consciousness.
About the Author
The novels of the American writer Cormac McCarthy have received a number of literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His works adapted to film include All the Pretty Horses, The Road, and No Country for Old Men—the latter film receiving four Academy Awards, including the award for Best Picture.
NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR
A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: NEW YORK TIMES • GOODREADS • KIRKUS
CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR EXCELLENCE NOMINEE
“A total banger…[The Passenger] blends the rowdy humor of some of McCarthy’s early novels with the parched tone of his more apocalyptic later work. It’s the first novel I’ve read in years that I feel I need to read three more times to fully understand, and that I want to read three more times simply to savor. It’s so packed with funny, strange, haunted sentences that other writers will be stealing lines from it for epigraphs, as if it were Ecclesiastes, for the next 150 years….The whole thing reads like a cosmic, bleakly funny John D. MacDonald thriller…The Passenger is a great New Orleans novel. It’s a great food novel…For anyone who cares, it’s also a great Knoxville novel — Knoxville being where McCarthy spent most of his childhood. It’s filled with references to his earlier work...A sprawling book of ideas."
–Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“A brilliant book… A stunning accomplishment…McCarthy turns his substantial writerly gifts upon two distinct forces: the mechanical and the theoretical. He attends to the exquisite detail of Bobby’s physical world—the sounds and feel of an oil rig in a storm, the touch and clunk of a cigarette machine in a bar, the step-by-step process of removing a bathroom cabinet or digging up and carting off buried treasure…It’s Cormac McCarthy writing as only Cormac McCarthy can.”
–Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
“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… 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… The style—a mingling of profound contemplation and rapid-fire dialogue, always without quotation marks and often without attribution—is pure McCarthy.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“With the publication of The Passenger and its companion novel Stella Maris, McCarthy seems to be done mining the myth of America. Instead, he ponders what it means to exist, and what our history tells us about our future… He digs into the big ideas of the universe, like human existence and what it means, as well as what our history and memory mean. He’s searching for something different… Where other writers venture into the mind and soul, McCarthy has leapt past that to ask what a soul is—and if it even exists…. McCarthy is no longer searching in the dirt trail across the West and saying, ‘This is it. This is our human nature.’ In The Passenger and Stella Maris, he’s trying to see the God that made the man who wrote those words.”
—Kevin Koczwara, Esquire
“After sixteen years of characteristic seclusion, McCarthy returns with a one-two punch...The Passenger is an elegiac meditation on guilt, grief, and spirituality. Packed with textbook McCarthy hallmarks, like transgressive behaviors and cascades of ecstatic language, it’s a welcome return from a legend who’s been gone too long.”
—Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire
“At 89, [McCarthy is] still riffing, like a jazz virtuoso, on the American Nightmare, Faulkner’s mythmaking, and the cadences of Joyce. McCarthy’s flame burns bright and clear in two new works…The Passenger, wondrous in its architecture, and a companion piece, Stella Maris, a minimalist, edgy novella…McCarthy toggles between books and across decades, sketching the contours of a love that dare not say its name. McCarthy’s art is transcendent even as it takes no prisoners, an achievement akin only to the oeuvres of his greatest peers, Toni Morrison and Philip Roth. He will endure.”
“Sometimes I think the reason literary criticism got obsessed with evaluating prose as ‘sentences’ over the past few decades is simply that McCarthy’s are so good. They rattle out at you like little bullets, mean and punchy and precise… Taken together, [The Passenger and Stella Maris] offer an intellectual experience that’s not quite like anything else out there, laced with the eerie beauty that only Cormac McCarthy can offer.”
—Constance Grady, Vox
“His first novels since his 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner The Road…are as bold and intellectually keen as anything the author’s ever written…Faulknerian.”
—Barbara VanDenburgh, USA Today
“An imposing achievement and a testament to nearly nine decades of inquiry by a brilliant mind…The Passenger is a powerful and thought-provoking distillation of many of the genres and ideas that have obsessed McCarthy throughout his career. There are lyrical evocations of nature reminiscent of The Border Trilogy, elements of sinister thriller straight from Νo Country for Old Men, moments of death-haunted solitude that recall The Road, and a comic cataloging of deviants and misfits that revives the riverside anthropology of Suttree. The book’s kaleidoscopic compression of sensibilities and subjects constitutes a new aesthetic in its own right.”
—Nick Romeo, Daily Beast
“Like [Bob] Dylan, McCarthy fashions the country as a cast-iron, biblical land where grand themes play out in vast landscapes around lonely, small people. You can practically hear the rusty gate swaying in the wind, everything made of leather, mud, or simmering flesh. Most of us imagine life as a high-wire act with oneself as the acrobat, but McCarthy acknowledges it as a bridge, an ordinary path of extraordinary consequence with a beginning, an end, and an edge most men don’t ever tempt…The language in The Passenger and Stella Maris is compelling and soulful, even when the voice sounds sharp. Amid…talk of mathematics and wickedness and hideous ruination, there is poetry and the rhythm of song. Sheddan’s lines alone are worth the price of admission, such as when he says humans are ‘ten percent biology and ninety percent nightrumor,’ and that ‘every remedy for loneliness only postpones it.’”
—Nathan King, Air Mail
“The Passenger and Stella Maris tackle dazzlingly fresh ground…McCarthy’s daring has not dimmed since The Road, and The Passenger and Stella Maris pull no punches as they explore the craggiest regions of human consciousness through two of McCarthy’s most vividly drawn characters… McCarthy’s writing retains the tangible gristle of a field guide, full of the organic solidity and exacting diction that have helped solidify his reputation… Read together, The Passenger and Stella Maris are a fascinating diptych, bringing light and depth to each other. The mysteries and coincidences are legion, and mirrored moments are plentiful …. McCarthy’s writing pursues a sublime and majestic undercurrent weaving through the dark waves of chaos…. The results are staggering.”
—Seth L. Riley, The Millions
“Critics have detected the influence on [McCarthy] of Faulkner and Hemingway, but this is to understate his achievement. His new novel, The Passenger, shows that McCarthy belongs in the company of Melville and Dostoevsky, writers the world will never cease to need…Many of the book’s scenes have a numinous, enigmatic quality that lingers in the mind…The Passenger is a study in living without answers.”
—John Gray, New Statesman
“A sprawling, surreal affair, a book as strange as any he’s ever written, and reminiscent of the melancholy drift and God-haunted monologues of McCarthy’s earliest novels….Almost everything about the novel’s first hundred pages generates expectations for something tough, lean and violent…And then—beautifully, mysteriously, and somewhat bafflingly—we get another book entirely … McCarthy [is]…a writer of both wonderfully taut and often very funny dialogue, and this is a book full of talk, bouncing from jokey drunk chat to near-baffling stretches of monologic erudition … He is a prose stylist without peer … On almost every page some Faulknerian dazzle finds you…It’s thrilling to return to writing as unashamedly biblical and rhetorical as this.”
–Adam Rivett, The Sydney Morning Herald
“[The Passenger] is among McCarthy’s most quietly reflective novels, recalling the moments of serenity amid scenes of devastation that made The Road so haunting…The ebb and flow of spare economy and lyrical intoxication undoubtedly lends the most rhapsodic passages a poignancy unusual even by McCarthy’s standards….A moving and characteristically disconcerting addition to the oeuvre of one of America’s greatest writers.”
—Doug Battersby, Irish Times
“A…beautifully rendered meditation on humanity’s relationship to nature… McCarthy, perhaps the most lyrical poet of slaughter since Homer, is at his most biblical and elegiac describing the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki… The Passenger and Stella Maris together form a profound addition to the legacy of a true literary savant.”
—Ed Tarkington, Chapter 16
“[McCarthy] rockets readers into the black hole at the hub of his galactic imagination, an event horizon so rich and dense we can only marvel as we fall through its warped fabric….Like Moses, McCarthy seeks a land of milk and honey beyond the rim of the universe but spies only oblivion (and perhaps the ghostly glow of math)… Despite the darkness ahead, The Passenger and Stella Maris crown a magnificent career that will guide us forward, for as long as the lights stay on.”
—Hamilton Cain, Star Tribune
“[A] dizzyingly metaphysical treatise on the human condition. Although McCarthy initially clothes The Passenger in the trappings of Hitchcockian espionage, it only takes so many conversations between Western and his lively cadre of barfly philosopher chums to realize that it’s in these digressions where McCarthy’s true fascination lies...The full payoff is unquestionably something remarkable. Eschewing body counts for philosophical debate, the legacy of McCarthy’s new offerings is…both magnificent and cruelly impossible to define.”
—Zack Ruskin, SF Chronicle
“[McCarthy] reigns as a titan of American lit--an undisputed heir to Melville and Faulkner, the subject of infinite grad-school theses, and a hard-nosed dispenser of what Saul Bellow called ‘life-giving and death-dealing’ sentences... It's the humid, fevered, magniloquent, Bible-cadenced, comma-starved, word-drunk prose of what some fans consider his masterwork, Suttree... There's a lot here. It might make your head spin... What it all adds up to--perhaps surprisingly--is a doomed and unsettling love story, a Platonic tragedy.... Electric and thunderous… An astonishing pair of novels… Taken together, The Passenger and Stella Maris are an intellectually breathtaking achievement.”
–Jonathan Miles, Garden & Gun
“This gripping mystery is sure to satisfy readers of one of our most acclaimed living authors.”
—Chicago Review of Books
“The darkness of McCarthy’s subject matter, combined with a high-flown style that earns him comparisons to William Faulkner and James Joyce, has contributed to his legend as perhaps the greatest living American author…At a time when the dominant strain of American writing is still ‘autofiction,’ …McCarthy’s epic, blood-drenched tales of the American South and Southwest are a throwback to a time when novelists wrote big books about big questions and had the temerity to think they could answer them…Death and violence are his great subjects, which he approaches with philosophical rigour and theological depth.”
–Park Macdougald, UnHerd
“A compelling read…The Passenger is, to coin a phrase, a pre-apocalyptic novel… McCarthy has a lilting legato to his prose; usually quiet, sometimes unexpected. The word ‘gray’ is seeded across the novel…There is no black or white in this ashen world.”
–Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman
“Chilling and masterly.... His prose frequently approaches the Shakespearean, ranging from droll humor to the rapid-fire spouting of quotable fecundity. Dialogues click into place like a finely tuned engine. McCarthy has somehow added a new register to his inimitable voice. Long ensconced in the literary firmament, McCarthy further bolsters his claim for the Mount Rushmore of the literary arts.”
"A beguiling, surpassingly strange novel by the renowned—and decidedly idiosyncratic—author of Blood Meridian (1982) and The Road (2006)… It’s all vintage McCarthy, if less bloody than much of his work: Having logged time among scientists as a trustee at the Santa Fe Institute, he’s now more interested in darting quarks than exploding heads…Plenty of his trademark themes and techniques are in evidence, from conspiracy theories…and shocking behavior…to flights of beautiful language…Enigmatic, elegant, extraordinary: a welcome return after a too-long absence."
—Kirkus Reviews, starred
“A rich story of an underachieving salvage diver in 1980 New Orleans... This thriller narrative is intertwined with the story of Western’s sister, Alicia… He dazzles with his descriptions of a beautifully broken New Orleans… The book’s many pleasures will leave readers aching for the final installment.”
“The Passenger is worthy of becoming your favorite new literary drug, a multifaceted jewel of a book that will keep you up all night reading and thinking…There is also plenty of grim laugh-out-loud humor scattered in the tales of war, death and love…[The Passenger] is required and unforgettable reading that will make you even more impatient to encounter its companion.”
—Joe Hartlaub, Book Reporter