cover image The Passenger

The Passenger

Cormac McCarthy. Knopf, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-307-26899-0

McCarthy returns 16 years after his Pulitzer-winning The Road with a rich story of an underachieving salvage diver in 1980 New Orleans, the first in a two-volume work. Bobby Western, son of a nuclear physicist who worked on the atomic bomb, is tasked with investigating a private plane crash in the Gulf. The plane’s crew is dead, the black box is missing, and one passenger is unaccounted for. Soon, agents of the U.S. government begin to harass Western and his coworker, then this colleague turns up dead. This thriller narrative is intertwined with the story of Western’s sister, Alicia, a mathematical genius who had schizophrenia and died by suicide. In flashbacks of Alicia’s hallucinations, vaudevillian characters perform for her—most notably, a character named the Thalidomide Kid. Alicia and the Kid engage in numerous conversations about arcane philosophy, theology, and physics—staples of the philosopher-tramps, vagabonds, and sociopaths of McCarthy’s canon, though their presence doesn’t feel quite as thematically grounded as they do in his masterworks. Still, he dazzles with his descriptions of a beautifully broken New Orleans: “The rich moss and cellar smell of the city thick on the night air. A cold and skullcolored moon.... At times the city seemed older than Nineveh.” The book’s many pleasures will leave readers aching for the final installment. (Oct.)