Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger opens with a dead woman hanging from a tree. She committed suicide on Christmas day. So that’s brutal, but then you remember who the author is.
The Passenger is a beautifully written Southern Gothic. It’s also frustrating – taking detours that may be interesting but don’t lead anywhere. For example, one character has a wordy monologue about who really assassinated JFK. It’s only mildly intriguing because this terrain has been trampled for decades. So you wonder – was McCarthy being paid by the word?
After the suicide, the story jumps about 10 years to 1980 and a small plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico. Excellent, more death. Perhaps McCarthy can work the Holocaust into this. Spoiler alert – he does.
Bobby Western (think Western Civilization) is a salvage diver. He is sent by an unknown client to investigate the crash. He and his partner, Oiler, dive into the literal and metaphorical murky waters, use a torch to open the plane’s door, and find 9 drowned passengers. The plane’s black box is missing. It is clear there was a tenth passenger, but that person has disappeared. When he returns to New Orleans, government agents show up asking vague but concerning questions. Oiler goes to work on another assignment and dies. Was he murdered? Is Western next? How come the plane crash is never mentioned in the newspapers? Is Western being followed? Who keeps breaking into his apartment? Can he do anything about it? If he can, will he? So many questions, and McCarthy isn’t interested in answering any of them.
This story is really a meditation on the shitshow that was the twentieth century. Auschwitz and Hiroshima are the “sister events that sealed forever the fate of the West.” It doesn’t help that Western’s father was a physicist who helped build the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Western’s sister (Alicia) is the young woman who committed suicide. She was schizophrenic and stopped taking her meds. In flashbacks we jump into her mind. She’s a twentieth-century Alice in a demented Wonderland, and these chapters are stunning. They show McCarthy at his formidable best, and the novel is worth reading for these sections alone.
Western is haunted by Alicia’s suicide. He loved her very much. Maybe too much. Incest is hinted at. He’s also extremely troubled by his father’s work on the bomb. If Alicia is a modern-day Alice, Western is a twentieth-century Hamlet. He certainly has daddy issues, and suicidal Alicia just might be his Ophelia. Plus Western is supremely indecisive. He doesn’t know if he’s being hunted by a killer or haunted by a ghost. He’s trapped and doesn’t care. “If all that I loved in the world is gone what difference does it make if I’m free to go to the grocery store?”
So who is the passenger? Who isn’t? The passenger seems to be any creature buffeted by storms trying to survive without necessarily knowing how best to do that.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor