The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy

Review by Luanne Clark

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.