Cormac McCarthy returns with cryptic “The Passenger”.

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“The Passenger” by Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A. Knopf)

It’s been 16 years since Cormac McCarthy published The Road and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, cementing his reputation as a masterful American novelist. Plenty of time, then, to write two books for fans to enjoy in 2022.

The first, The Passenger, is out now, and while it has that traditional McCarthy style (sparse prose, few commas and adjectives, sparse apostrophes, and no quotation marks to tell you who’s speaking), it’s nothing if not original. Difficult to summarize the plot, but the protagonist is a guy with a great name, Bobby Western. The novel begins in 1980 in Mississippi when Bobby, a salvage diver, is on a Coast Guard boat to explore the wreckage of a plane crash beneath the surface. From the manifest we learn that there is a passenger whose body is not on board and whose black box is missing. But this is definitely not a thriller. If you turn the pages hoping for answers, you won’t find them.

What you will find are in-depth discussions on quantum mechanics, God, the atomic bomb, the death of JFK, and of course, love. We learn that Bobby’s younger sister, Alicia, was a math prodigy who, years ago while pursuing her doctorate at the University of Chicago, settled in a psychiatric hospital called Stella Maris in Wisconsin before taking her own life. (“Stella Maris” is also the name of the companion novel, which will be released December 6.) We learn that her father and mother both worked on the Manhattan Project, father as one of the scientists with Oppenheimer when they first Mushroom Clouds are observed filling the sky in the New Mexico desert. Oh, and we learn the siblings loved each other. Incestuous? Not clear. But it certainly haunts them both. Alicia is a diagnosed schizophrenic who is visited by various “chimeras”. She calls the ringleader “Contergan child”. He’s small and has fins instead of hands. She deserves her own chapters, all in italics, in which she converses with these hallucinations.

If that all sounds like a lot, you’re right. This is not easy beach reading. It’s difficult to follow at times, in part because the supporting characters are barely introduced. Someone’s looking for Bobby – about the plane crash? Because of his parentage? — and he avoids detection by wandering the South talking to people of his past and present about philosophy and cars and nuclear annihilation as we piece his story together. Reading Stella Maris later this year will help some. It takes the form of transcripts between Alicia and her doctor and is formatted as a series of interviews with the patient, set eight years before the events of The Passenger. But Alicia isn’t just any patient. Like her brother, she thinks deeply about everything and shares everything with Dr. Robert Cohen. The one thing she won’t delve too deeply into? Bobby.

At 89, McCarthy still has a lot to say. Both books ponder consciousness, what it really means to be alive, and whether there are universal truths that govern the world. And while it’s fair not to expect answers to such big questions, some readers will wonder why the stories have to be so cryptic.

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