When it comes to people who peddle words for a living, Cormac McCarthy has many contemporaries but few peers. The only living one who comes to mind is Bob Dylan, another private octogenarian whose work has less to do with writing than it does with preserving the artist’s belief in a sort of American mysticism.
Like Dylan, McCarthy fashions the country as a cast-iron, biblical land where grand themes play out in vast landscapes around lonely, small people. You can practically hear the rusty gate swaying in the wind, everything made of leather, mud, or simmering flesh. Most of us imagine life as a high-wire act with oneself as the acrobat, but McCarthy acknowledges it as a bridge, an ordinary path of extraordinary consequence with a beginning, an end, and an edge most men don’t ever tempt.
His characters aren’t like most of us, though. They’re strong men—and, yes, as Oprah reminded McCarthy in 2007 in a rare interview about his writing, they’re almost always men—belittled by their own doubt, buffeted off course and into the unknown by mysterious agents and obscure forces. Their fear of heights is exceeded only by their fear of falling.
These days, the lengths to which McCarthy will go to make that point are so great that they require two volumes to traverse: The Passenger, out this coming Tuesday, and Stella Maris, to be published on December 6.
Together, the novels interweave the stories of Bobby and Alicia Western, siblings whose father helped build the atom bomb. Alicia, the long-awaited female McCarthy lead who’s enough to make Oprah careful what she wishes for, is a math prodigy with schizophrenia, and her illness is so consuming that her death, by suicide, is offered not as a resolution but as a jumping-off point for the first book. There, her crisis unfolds in retrospect as a series of tormenting hallucinations populated with vaudevillian characters such as “the Thalidomide Kid.” In Stella Maris, she is trapped in a vise of madness—not to mention a long dialogue with her doctor—her mental illness, the fixed jaw; mathematical theory, the sliding one.
But as is often true of mental illness, it’s Bobby, the surviving relative, who’s left to sort through the wreckage. Admittedly the less gifted of the two siblings, he forgoes his adventures in mathematics to race cars in Europe, but by the time the reader comes upon him, at the beginning of The Passenger, he has settled on the more appropriate profession of salvage diver.
Off the foggy shores near New Orleans, he sees something he’s not supposed to see—or, rather, doesn’t see something he’s supposed to—and spends the rest of the novel under the vague but ominous foot of the United States government. As if that weren’t enough, he’s left to reckon with the sins of his father, the untenability of his own identity, an ensemble of rascal friends as troubled as himself, and the fact that he is in love with his dead sister.
The implied counter to McCarthy’s point, in The Passenger, that “beauty makes promises that beauty cant [sic] keep,” is that mathematics and science make promises they can. Bobby Western, whose last name on its own conjures a whole genre devoted to tests of valor and independence, has the odds—and the laws of subtraction—stacked against him. When familial love and romantic love are dashed in one fell swoop, you’re not devastated, you’re Job. No matter where he flees to—his family’s home in the hills of Tennessee, the state of oblivion that is Idaho, a deserted oil rig off the coast of Florida—Bobby confronts the irony that you can’t escape loss.
But even if you don’t read the book, you should know that absolution comes in the form of friendship, not love. Between Kline, a private detective whom the main character enlists to make him disappear, and John Sheddan, a roguish junkyard philosopher who proves there’s honor among thieves, Bobby learns to stop bothering and tries moving on.
Like Dylan’s, the language in The Passenger and Stella Maris is compelling and soulful, even when the voice sounds sharp. Amid esoteric talk of mathematics and wickedness and hideous ruination, there is poetry and the rhythm of song. Sheddan’s lines alone are worth the price of admission, such as when he says humans are “ten percent biology and ninety percent nightrumor,” and that “every remedy for loneliness only postpones it.”
In these two books, McCarthy, whose “about the author” page in the galleys is fittingly left blank, proves not only that he believes what Sheddan says, but that he can’t help but cast a long shadow over the type set in his name.
Nathan King is a Deputy Editor for AIR MAIL