McCarthy’s Missing Man

The Passenger
by Cormac McCarthy
400 pp., $30.00

Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger, the first part of a two-volume work the author has described as a “science fiction” story, is flawed, but those of us who have attentively read and attempted to interpret the great author’s works will recognize its merits.

The Passenger’s Bobby Western is one among many of McCarthy’s unlikely protagonists. He is the son of a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, a former physicist and mathematician himself, a former race-car driver, and, in the Pass Christian, Miss., of 1980, a salvage diver. His background is gradually revealed during the course of the novel: As a boy he lived in Tennessee, spending time with his Appalachian grandparents when his father worked at Oak Ridge. He has a strange—bordering on incestuous—relationship with his sister, Alicia, a brilliant mathematician prone to mental illness.

Her schizophrenia and hints that Bobby may be showing signs of that same malady play a large role in The Passenger, keeping the reader guessing as to what is real and what isn’t, the fundamental question his beautiful, brilliant sister puzzles over until she commits suicide. Guilt over her death, and the fact that he was not present when his father was dying, haunts Western. His deeply abiding loneliness is a common state of McCarthy’s characters.

Alicia is constantly tormented by hallucinations, a phantom stage show of characters directed by her spectral muse, the Thalidomide Kid, who argues with Alicia over the nature of reality and challenges her mathematical attempts to unravel the mystery of existence. It’s a trip down a rabbit hole of equations that has, McCarthy implies, driven her mad. At one point, the Kid tells her,

You will never know what the world is made of. The only thing that’s certain is that it is not made of the world. As you close upon some mathematical description of reality you can’t help but lose what is described. Every inquiry displaces what is addressed.

The Kid flatly tells Alicia that reality is, in fact, real: “A moment in time,” he tells her, “is a fact, not a possibility.” The fact that time flows and does not stand still, and that indeterminacy and possibility are also built into our mysterious universe does not preclude an ultimate reality. One character asks Alicia how she could believe in her hallucinations but not in Jesus.

McCarthy’s larger point concerns another scientific issue that is fundamental to our understanding and perception of reality: that of the observer and the observed. Commenting on the problems of quantum mechanics, Western says that “there were no starry skies prior to the first sentient and ocular being to behold them.” This seems to be related to another theme that comes up a number of times in The Passenger: that scientific reductionism and materialism have deprived us of our ability to actually “see,” to perceive through imagination and intuition a reality that is too complex, mysterious, and awesome (we have lost our sense of awe) to reduce to formulas. The sum is greater than the parts. The universe, as Western says, quoting Kant, is “that which is not adapted to our powers of cognition.”

The disconnection between the modern—now post-modern—world and nature has blunted our sense of wonder and thus our intuitive knowledge of life and being. Nature is red in tooth and claw but life affirming at the same time. As in his other books (and perhaps more so), McCarthy, through the eyes of Western, surveys and embraces being by way of contacts with the natural world. In Tennessee, Bobby walks in the remote woods and watches:

A muskrat had put out from the shore at the deep end down near the dam and it swam toward him … Clouds had moved over the sun and it grew colder. … A hawk appeared out of the woods below and rose effortlessly and came about and drifted quarterwise down the wind and turned and rose again and hovered. … The hawk turned once more and was gone.

In addition to the touchstones provided by nature, it is the simple people Western encounters who seem to have the best grip on reality. His grandmother tells him, “You have to believe there is good in the world” and that “the work of your hands”—work that produces something tangible (in this case, the family home)—will bring that good into your life. Finding that good is an act of faith bolstered by experience, intuition, and imagination. It is among those simple people, in nature, at his old home that Western encounters something that is real in a world of uncertainty.

At the novel’s opening, Alicia commits suicide. Bobby literally and figuratively dives into a mystery we never see answered, much as Alicia (and her fellow scientists) can never truly solve the bigger mysteries they ponder.

At the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is a charter jet, apparently undisturbed, that crashed into the sea. Western finds the bodies of nine passengers, their eyes now “devoid of speculation,” but the body of a tenth passenger is missing, along with the plane’s “black box,” and the pilot’s flight bag. What happened to the tenth passenger? And who seemingly penetrated the plane’s fuselage without opening the compartment door?

From then on, Western becomes the object of inquiry, then pursuit, of mysterious G-men posing bizarre questions (“Do you believe in aliens?”—the flip side of another question frequently asked by the novel’s characters, “Do you believe in God?”), giving no answers as to what they know or want to know, or even who they are. Along the way, the reader begins to wonder whether Western is also losing his mind: Are the G-men secretive men-in-black from some remote corner of Area 51, or are they simply IRS agents after a hoard of treasure Western found and never reported? Is Western reimagining his real problem as another? What was the fate of the missing passenger? And did Western imagine the entire episode? That last becomes a question when we learn that Western, as a boy, once discovered a crashed plane in the mountains of Tennessee. We never know the answers, much like Western can never quite get to the bottom of his own existence.

Along the way, the theme of what is real and what is not, of paranoia and deep suspicion regarding the powers-that-be, recurs. Western ponders building a new, false identity to elude his pursuers, real and imagined. To help him, he employs a private detective, Kline, a man who has immersed himself in the various theories about J.F.K.’s assassination (he favors Mafia boss Carlos Marcelo as the hand behind the killing, with Oswald as a patsy). Kline warns Bobby that he can never escape his pursuers, which foreshadows the creeping technological hand of Big Brother approaching us from behind.

Kline tells Western that “everyone is under arrest. Or soon will be. They don’t want to restrict your movements. They just have to know where you are.” He goes on, saying that “information and survival will ultimately be the same thing. Sooner than you think.” He explains that the powers-that-be will eventually invent “electronic money,” and then our fate will be sealed. Attempts to dodge Big Brother will be opposed (and that will mean “rescinding certain parts of the Constitution”). “Do you ever feel that somebody is after you?,” asks Western. Whatever that somebody or something is, “It’s waiting for you, it always will be.”

That somebody or something, the reader may infer, is the ever-present chance of personal calamity, springing from the dark corners of life unexpectedly. McCarthy portrayed that possibility in No Country for Old Men through the psychopathic assassin Anton Chigurh’s coin toss, a game whereby the fate of Chigurh’s hapless potential victims was decided. In No Country, Chigurh embodies something else as well—an unspeakable evil that is approaching us, a level of destruction and malevolence that Sheriff Ed Tom Bell anticipates and fears. A terrible force heretofore only hinted at. Western’s paranoia in 1980 is the returning theme of Ed Tom’s fear.

One of the strange menagerie of characters Western lives among, Long John, has this to say on the same subject: “Difficult these days to be a rake or a bounder. … A deviant? A pervert? Surely you are joking. The new dispensations have all but erased those categories from the language.” “It doesn’t,” says Long John, “take Nostradamus to see where this is headed.” The world, he says, is “careening toward a darkness beyond the bitterest speculation.”

McCarthy strongly implies that scientific materialism and reductionism end in nihilism and self-destruction. Man, in his Promethean quest to steal fire from the gods, has gone too far, lifting the lid on Pandora’s box. The Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb together comprise one product of that quest whereby humanity may well destroy itself. Technological Big Brother’s looking over our collective shoulder is another. Western’s mother, for instance, went to work at Oak Ridge (one of the original sites of the Manhattan Project) during the war (and met Bobby’s father), but she immediately sensed that the project was “Godless,” and Western himself frequently ponders Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the shape of things to come:

His father spoke little to them of Trinity. … Lying face down in the bunker. Their voices low in the darkness. Two. One. Zero. Then the sudden whited meridian. Out there the rocks dissolving into a slag that pooled over the melting sands of the desert. Small creatures crouched aghast in that sudden and unholy day and then they were no more. What appeared to be some vast
violetcolored creature rising up out of the earth where it had thought to sleep its deathless sleep and wait its hours of hours.

Man’s lust for control over nature has shown up in McCarthy’s work before. In Blood Meridian, for instance, the Judge gathers artifacts at ancient sites in the desert, as well as specimens of flora and fauna, draws them in his ledger, then destroys the artifacts themselves. The Judge says, “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” He declares that “only nature can enslave man, and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” The Thalidomide Kid, in contrast, tells Alicia that an attempt to fix reality in written form creates artificial restraints that distort the thing itself: “It collapses into a reality estranged from the realm of its creation.”

Another frequent motif in McCarthy’s novels is that of the quest or trek, the escape and pursuit. The Passenger replays that motif as well as that of the protagonist reduced to elemental survival. Bobby Western, like the father in The Road, John Grady Cole of All the Pretty Horses, and Llewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, is on a desperate trek, a pursuit and an escape, a metaphor for McCarthy’s take on the human condition. Along the way, he nearly starves, and our emaciated hero, his clothes in tatters, hits the bottom of a pit of madness and physical extremity. Stripped down to his most elemental condition, Western, like so many others in McCarthy’s books, attempts a slow, halting ascent that is also an effort to affirm some sort of stable identity.

In the end, Western survives physically and, to some extent, finds his escape in a Spanish fishing village, though he never eludes the ultimate confines of his loneliness. He goes to a parish church and attempts to pray. Like Sheriff Ed Tom in No Country, who dreams of seeing his deceased father, the bearer of the flame, Western seeks some solace in his lonely existence, and some hope: “He knew that on the day of his death, he would see her [Alicia’s] face, and he would hope to carry that beauty into the darkness with him.”

I would not recommend The Passenger as a starting point for readers wishing to acquaint themselves with McCarthy’s oeuvre—back up at least until No Country for Old Men and The Road, and by all means, tackle his existential masterpiece, Blood Meridian. A serious reader interested in McCarthy’s place in American letters should begin with his initial novel, The Orchard Keeper, and proceed from there. Any judgment of what McCarthy has been getting at since that first novel was published in 1965 must consider the entire body of his work and its recurring themes. Taking on McCarthy’s work is a big task, for his books are not about one thing, but everything.

Photo of Cormac McCarthy
used as the first-edition back

cover of his 1973 novel, Child
of God. (Photo by David Styles

McCarthy himself has said that only writing which considers existential issues—life, death, purpose, God, and man—should be considered literature, and he has indeed followed, with his unique and penetrating style, the example of great predecessors he says have influenced him: among them Melville, Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Faulkner.

Above all a modernist, McCarthy was seen by critics initially as a successor to Faulkner, but as he progressed, his writing evolved. He is famously dismissive of quotation marks and standard punctuation, saying that too many “squiggly lines” get in the way of a story’s flow, but the Faulkneresque element of his writing gradually took on qualities that are unique to him.

In his later books, especially his apocalyptic western, Blood Meridian, McCarthy took his bare minimalism mixed with Faulkner’s penchant for long sentences to soaring poetic heights echoing those of the King James Bible. He coined strange words that seemed forged from the fundamental elements themselves, in keeping with his preoccupation with flora, fauna, and the geology of his settings.

McCarthy has frequently stated that he prefers the conversation and company of scientists to that of other writers. Indeed, he has been a member of the Santa Fe Institute, a theoretical research center in New Mexico, since the 1980s, and in recent years, McCarthy has written essays on the unconscious mind and the origins of language. And as The Passenger indicates, he has spent long hours in conversations with theoretical physicists and mathematicians.

Despite McCarthy’s genius, however, there are parts of The Passenger that don’t work. The novel seems in some ways to be a collection of vignettes that he had in his desk drawer and stitched into this narrative, a work that may have been intended initially as one long book but was edited into two pieces.

Notwithstanding his scientific interests, the vignettes McCarthy favors in The Passenger come from another quarter—that of denizens of bars and pool rooms, diners, work sites, and remote hideaways, colorful characters and misfits, bums and petty criminals who provide, as they have in his past books (especially Suttree), a fabric of folksy (and frequently bawdy) humor as well as a common-man quality to McCarthy’s frequent philosophical ruminations.

Judging from the ever-present technical details in his books on everything from welding to masonry, hunting to guns, diving to horsemanship, cars to planes, McCarthy has spent an awful lot of time with another class of people, one he might prefer even to scientists. But the array of conversations stuffed into The Passenger made me wonder whether there are too many disconnected dialogues present in this novel of ideas. The story could have been shorter and tighter.

Sometimes, too, it seems that everyone in this book, whether drug head, drunk, detective, or drag queen/tranny wannabe entertainer is a self-educated philosopher who can quote Pascal and Kant. McCarthy’s books deal with deep philosophical and religious issues, but sometimes, less articulate characters nevertheless state the issues more clearly and with a less pedantic style than the unlikely armchair philosophers his protagonists encounter.

Finally, McCarthy is a literary modernist who, as noted earlier, has experimented with varying styles in his best books. The Passenger’s reiteration of his stylistic innovations, however, veers at times too close to self-parody for comfort.

Those criticisms aside, the book is very much worth reading.

So where does The Passenger fit into the McCarthy corpus, and where have McCarthy’s literary efforts taken him in a career that has spanned 60 years?

Like Mr. White and Mr. Black in his play Sunset Limited, McCarthy has been locked in a literary debate (with himself acting through the diametrically opposed views of his characters) over the meaning, if any, and purpose, if any, of human existence. The Passenger reflects that internal debate, as have the many heated arguments among his characters over the years.

I think that his final answer to those questions would be something like this: We cannot know in any formulaic fashion that there is either meaning or purpose in our lives. We cannot say that one can prove the existence of God. But one can choose to believe—not only in God but in life, in hope, in meaning, in purpose—and find a certain fulfillment in that. Our own experience can provide us an access to truth, and there is more than one way of “knowing.” The opposing view is the embrace of death—of ourselves and our world. Nihilism is the path to madness. McCarthy, opposing claims notwithstanding, is no nihilist.

In his literature, he embraces the paradox, and the miracle, of our existence. He finds the central place of opposing sides to reality and their unity. Good and evil. Life and death. Faith and doubt. Living in a world where pain is a constant and suffering a certainty, one must seek faith, cultivate wonder, and hope.

To paraphrase a line in The Passenger, there is a solidity and permanence to sorrow and grief that even joy lacks. For there is no sorrow or grief without having had something that was lost. By that, we know we are alive. We sense, intuit, and imagine a reality in ourselves and beyond ourselves that is called forth in their interaction. That should tell us something.

We are all passengers on a ride that can end at any time. Life is about making the ride worth it. McCarthy himself is the missing man in all his books, never quite showing his hand. But it is impossible to think that a man who has written such moving, terrifying, inspiring prose could ever believe he was engaged in a futile act.

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