Skip to main content

The Passenger


The Passenger

» Click here to read Joe Hartlaub's review of STELLA MARIS, the second volume in The Passenger series.


Let us start with some of the backstory of THE PASSENGER. Cormac McCarthy’s last novel, THE ROAD, was published in 2006. Many readers at that time wondered what would be next for him. Rumors followed intermittently. News finally trickled out that McCarthy was working on a new novel about mathematics. A page was up on Amazon shortly thereafter, offering the book for presale, but it quickly vanished. There was no further word other than expressions of yearning and wistfulness about its failure to appear.

That is, until March 8, 2022, when Knopf, McCarthy’s longtime and extremely patient publisher, announced that THE PASSENGER would release on October 25, 2022, while a second book (described elsewhere as a sequel/prequel/coda) titled STELLA MARIS would follow. The first part of that promise is now fulfilled, and it is everything one might have hoped for. THE PASSENGER is worthy of becoming your favorite new literary drug, a multifaceted jewel of a book that will keep you up all night reading and thinking.

"THE PASSENGER is worthy of becoming your favorite new literary drug, a multifaceted jewel of a book that will keep you up all night reading and thinking."

The novel has been described by biologist David Krakauer as “McCarthy 3.0.” Just so. McCarthy certainly brings his familiar and unique stylistic form to THE PASSENGER, including a lack of quotation marks, the rareness of attribution, incomparable descriptions and extended conversations that plumb the personality essence of each compelling principal character. But the book is quite different topically from what he has previously written for the masses. Here, he emphasizes analysis and science to a greater degree than is normally found in modern literature. What is missing is the violence of his other novels, though the attendant sorrow of the human experience is present.

The narrative alternates in point of view between siblings Bobby and Alicia Western, who also are would-be lovers. We meet Alicia in 1973, the year of her death. She shares her occasional spotlight in acerbic conversations with a gentleman she calls the Thalidomide Kid, who in turn is accompanied by a bizarre and revolving cast of hangers-on. Alicia possesses an extremely high-order intelligence when it comes to mathematics and an interest to match, to the extent that it leaves her virtually no time for other concerns. The Kid makes his appearances wherever Alicia happens to be. He locates her with such skill that it seems clear he actually exists only in her imagination, though one can never be sure, even as they goad each other at length.

However, THE PASSENGER belongs primarily to Bobby, a diver in the middle of a salvage operation in 1980 near Pass Christian, Mississippi, where he is tasked with investigating the reported crash of a passenger plane in the Gulf of Mexico. He locates the submerged but otherwise undamaged jet easily enough, as well as more than a reasonable share of enigmas of the locked door mystery type. These include the seemingly impossible absences of the pilot’s flight bag, the black box and a passenger.

Bobby’s discovery causes him many problems in his hometown of New Orleans. He is barely dried off from the dive before mysterious strangers appear and begin questioning him about what he found. That would be bad enough, but they also launch an investigation into his sparse, deceptively simple life. Bobby has a wide and deep field of knowledge, particularly in physics, but he does not have the answers to the questions being asked of him.

Things start to unravel for Bobby in the gradual then sudden way that Ernest Hemingway described the acceleration of bankruptcy. His troubles also begin to dramatically affect his quirky and memorable friends, acquaintances and associates. The situation prompts him to retain a shadowy private investigator who has some potential solutions to his increasingly severe difficulties, though they are not the answers he wants. Ultimately, though, they are just what he needs. Perhaps. When and if Bobby starts will be his salvation, if he does not wait too long.

Some parts of THE PASSENGER can be rough sledding. McCarthy occasionally drops information into the dialogue that includes words and phrases familiar to mathematicians and physicists but most likely are unknown to the general public. Thankfully, the scientific discussions never bog down the narrative. The obscure terms are for the most part amenable to comprehension (at least minimally) with a few moments of research.

Please note that McCarthy is not showing off here. The multiple exposures to the pure scientific concepts found within these pages hint at a deeper story that enhances the primary one being presented. There is also plenty of grim laugh-out-loud humor scattered in the tales of war, death and love. McCarthy attempts and succeeds in covering all the bases of human activity while skipping lightly across the mystery, science fiction, thriller and even romance genres, though he does not linger too long in those kingdoms. Instead it carves out its own unassailable fiefdom.

So what is left for McCarthy to tell in STELLA MARIS? Alicia gets her own star turn in that book, which releases on December 6th. Perhaps it will answer some of the questions that are posed at the conclusion of THE PASSENGER…but then again, it may raise even more. In either case, the first volume of this major work is required and unforgettable reading that will make you even more impatient to encounter its companion.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 26, 2022

The Passenger
by Cormac McCarthy

  • Publication Date: September 26, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 030738909X
  • ISBN-13: 9780307389091