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Posted on 30 Mar 2023 in Fiction |

CORMAC MCCARTHY The Passenger. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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The new novel from this iconic writer embraces conspiracies, hallucinations and paranoia in America’s South.

The Passenger is an ambitious novel; it is also a little crazy. I was by turns gripped, maddened, bored and intrigued. It is a novel about paranoia and obsession and written in a dense style where language is seemingly more important than plot development.

Bobby Western is a deep-sea diver and his story begins in 1980 when he and a friend plunge into the depths of the Mississippi to find a ten-seater plane. There are nine bodies in the plane, but the pilot’s flight bag, the plane’s black box and the tenth passenger are missing. From this point Western’s life begins to unravel.

This novel is not a conventional mystery and there will be no satisfying resolution of the plot for the reader. Rather, we are drawn into the strangeness of Bobby’s world and his past – not least that he is the son of an inventor of the nuclear bomb – and he also carries guilt over the suicide of his sister, for whom he may have had incestuous feelings.

From the moment he returns from the dive, Bobby’s life is under threat as mysterious law officers arrive to interrogate him about what he may have found on the wreck. He moves lodgings and checks into a hotel that is a little like the Hotel California. He runs into characters from his past, who all seem to know about his predicament.

There were two men standing outside his door. He stopped. If they could get inside the gate then they could get inside his apartment. Then he realised they had been inside his apartment.

Mr Western?


I wonder if we could have a word with you?

Who are you?

They reached into their coat pockets and produced leather fobs with badges and put them away again. Maybe we could go in and talk for a minute.

Vault the gate. Run away.

Mr Western?

Sure. Okay.

Western takes another job diving on an abandoned oil rig off the Louisiana coast. Oiler, his co-worker on the previous job, drowns, and Western knows he is in trouble. He hires a lawyer who makes him aware that he cannot run away from his problems.

Side by side in italicised chapters, the story – and fantasies – of his sister Alicia unfold. I found these at times incomprehensible, but gradually some cohesion forms. Bobby seeks to make sense of his past in order to secure his future. This may be the time to mention that McCarthy has also published a companion volume, Stella Maris. This takes the form of Alicia being interviewed by a psychiatrist in the institution where she resides. The psych tries to make sense of the fantasies she recounts in The Passenger and her relationship with her brother and the guilt over their father’s life. I am not confident that reading Stella Maris will make the story of The Passenger any clearer but it may be of interest.

The pivotal point in The Passenger comes when ‘The Kid’, a figure from Alicia’s dreams, visits Western at his lowest point. HIs bank accounts have been seized and he has no money and no options. The Kid helps him realise that he needs to unfold his sister’s mystery and access her possessions in order to move on.

He was much as she’d described him. The hairless skull corraded with the scars perhaps come by at his unimaginable creation. The funny oarlike shoes he wore. His seal’s flippers splayed on the arms of the chair.

Are you alone? said Western

Jesus, Jonathan. Yeah. I’m alone. Can’t stay long. I’m just sort of playing hooky, actually.

You weren’t sent here to see me.

Nope. Come on me own hook. I was going through my calendar and the date caught my eye.

It’s come and gone before.

True enough.

Why are you here?

Just thought I’d see how you were doing.

On his quest Bobby has the assistance of friends on the fringe of society. Josie, the desk clerk at his dive hotel, keeps him informed of the comings and goings of others in the hotel and the various anonymous law enforcement figures. Debussy, a drag artist, is in love with Bobby and helps him by reading his sister’s letters and interpreting them. Sheddan, a barfly, is fully aware of Bobby’s past and lost potential as well as his troubled relationship with his family. Then there is Kline, his lawyer, who seemingly knows more about Bobby’s dilemma than Bobby himself. He encourages Bobby to leave town, adopt a new identity and lose himself. These characters are rich and Dickensian, popping up with amazing and coincidental regularity.

Within this sprawling novel McCarthy covers similar terrain to many of the great American writers, including the Vietnam War and the assassination of President Kennedy. Does the plane wreck have a connection to the Kennedys and their links with the Mafia? McCarthy will make you wonder, as have writers such as James Ellroy before him.

… Basically [Bobby] Kennedy was a moralist. Before long he was to have an amazing roster of enemies and he prided himself on knowing who they were and what they were up to. Which he didn’t of course. By the time his brother was shot a couple of years later they were mired up in a concatenation of plots and schemes that will never be sorted out. At the head of the list was killing Castro and if that failed actually invading Cuba. In the end I don’t think that would have happened but it’s a sort of bellwether for all the trouble they were in. I always wondered if there might not have been a moment there when Kennedy realized he was dying that he didn’t smile with relief.

It would take a reader with much more patience than me to decode this novel and make sense of the connections. I sat back and enjoyed the ride and it was surreal. McCarthy writes beautiful sentences and plumbs the depths of paranoia. He explores psychiatry, philosophy and physics with a deft touch. This is a novel which explores the big issues within a distinctly masculine working-class ethos and a specific cultural period in the United States. It is a book that demands to be re-read, and I will continue to dwell on its meaning.

Cormac McCarthy The Passenger Picador 2022 HB 400pp $45.00

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen

You can buy The Passenger from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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