THE PASSENGER. By Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A Button. 400 pages. $30.
STELLA MARIS. By Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A Button. 208 pages. $26.
Cormac McCarthy has long been recognized as one of our finest living writers. However, many assumed that he had published his last book. After “The Road” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, he fell silent. Then, last fall, he returned with a surprising pair of novels. At the age of 89, McCarthy had more to say.
His novels have gained a reputation for the power and strangeness of their language, reminiscent of Melville or the King James Bible. He uses such language to write about the most challenging of subjects—the existential quest for truth and meaning, America’s reckoning with violence, the stunning beauty and cold indifference of the cosmos—making it all the more remarkable that his writing is so popular . It’s not easy to read Cormac McCarthy. However, the rewards are immense.
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McCarthy’s new books offer two perspectives on a single story. The Passenger tells the story of Bobby Western, a commercial diver in New Orleans, who uncovers a mystery while salvaging a sunken plane. Its supplement Stella Maris tells the story of his sister Alicia through a series of interviews conducted in a mental hospital. The Passenger can be read as a standalone novel, but Stella Maris is intended as a companion piece. Taken together, they represent a refreshing experiment in form for McCarthy. As I read them, I was intrigued by the risks he was willing to take.
The books themselves take the reader to a number of places. Bobby Western lives in New Orleans amidst a riotous cast of characters whose conversations become deeply philosophical, half-drunk and often made to laugh. His sister Alicia lives the quieter life of an academic prodigy in the noble halls of research universities and mental institutions. More than once the novels suggest that true intelligence and knowledge of the world border on insane. McCarthy and his characters walk a fine line.
The reader is warned here. The content of these books is not for the faint of heart. Not only do Bobby and Alicia struggle to make sense of the world and their place in it, they are haunted by the work of their father, a nuclear scientist who helped develop the atomic bomb. What does it mean, you ask, that we’re even here? How do we understand the fact that we could turn the world and everything in it to dust?
The characters spend a lot of time pondering weighty questions of destiny and agency. They discuss the history of mathematics, quantum mechanics and the frontiers of human understanding. They experience their own smallness against the mighty backdrop of the laws and rhythms of nature.
As with all McCarthy novels, the questions drive the narrative forward, but the narrative itself doesn’t unravel in a conventional way. Rather, The Passenger and Stella Maris give us food for thought, puzzles that trouble our minds and stimulate our imaginations. The experience can be exciting or exhausting depending on your perspective.
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I was brought to life by these late McCarthy books. In them we find a literary philosopher at the height of his ability. Much of his work culminates in the humor, humanity, strangeness, and substance of these novels. Though difficult to read, there are moments of spare tenderness.
In a scene near the end of The Passenger, Bobby kneels on the shore in front of a bird that has fallen after a long hike. He looks at the annual arrival of thousands of birds along the Gulf Coast. “Tired songbirds. vireos. Kingbirds and Hawfinches. Too exhausted to move. You could pick her up out of the sand and hold her shaking in your hand. Their little hearts are beating and their eyes are closing.”
The image is vintage McCarthy. It can also provide a picture of readers after the experience of these novels. Cormac McCarthy gave us a vision of beauty and fragility. His books leave us breathless with questions.
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reviewer Jeremy Rutledge is senior minister of the Circular Congregational Church in Charleston.