The Passenger and Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy

Review by David Starkey

I have always thought of the novels of Cormac McCarthy as ultra-violent adventure stories written in an over-the-top style that’s sometimes mesmerizing and sometimes a bit annoying. Yes, there are philosophical thoughts and conversations, sometimes hyperbolic—witness Judge Holden in Blood Meridian—though more often the philosopher is laconic, like John Grady Cole or Billy Parham in The Border Trilogy. However, with a few exceptions, philosophizing never drags down the narrative of McCarthy’s best earlier novels. In fact, his writing is often at its most engaging when he is describing physical work and actions—how something is done or made. At these moments especially, you feel that Hemingway’s influence on his followers wasn’t so malign after all.

Therefore, when the second scene of The Passenger has salvage diver Bobby Western entering a crashed jet beneath the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a reader can’t help but feel exciting things are in store. However, that reader will already have been somewhat unsettled by the previous chapter, in which a young woman banters endlessly about life and death, good and evil, reality and illusion with a dwarfish hallucination with flippers rather than hands called the Thalidomide Kid. (No worries: time has not made McCarthy politically correct.)

The female character turns out to be Alicia Western, Bobby’s sister, with whom he shares incredible intelligence—though she’s the champ in that regard—and a love bordering on incest. Though Alicia has an entire book devoted to her, the companion novel Stella Maris, her creator has no compunction about inserting her into The Passenger—again and again and again.

Of the two books, The Passenger is the more successful. Here, for instance is the Hemingwayesque opening to a chapter, with its characteristic lack of punctuation: “[Bobby Western] walked down to the French Market in the morning and got the paper and sat on the terrace in the cool sun and drank hot coffee with milk. He thumbed through the paper. Nothing about the JetStar. He finished his coffee and stepped into the street and hailed a cab and went down to Belle Chasse and walked into the little operations room.” Precise, concrete, vivid—easy to follow.     

There is a great deal of dialogue in the novel (without quotation marks or apostrophes, of course). If The Passenger were a film or even a play, there’d be plenty of opportunities for trimming, but this is Cormac McCarthy, and so, as long as his dialogue moves the story forward, we are likely to indulge him in exchanges like this one:

            All right. What time do you have?

            What time do you have?

            Ten o six.

            Lou rotated his wrist and looked at his watch. Ten o four.

            I need to go.

However, not all the conversations move the story forward. Alas, all too often, Bobby will sit down with someone, and that person will go on and on and on, so impressed by their own verbosity, that you fear they will never stop talking.

If discursiveness is the curse plaguing The Passenger, it is the raison d’être for Stella Maris. Should you be eager for long conversations laden with wisecracks and discussions of philosophy, higher mathematics, love, failure, sin, family, and pretty much anything else you can think of, Stella Maris is your book. The novel is a nearly two-hundred-page transcription of seven therapy sessions in 1972 between Dr. Robert Cohen, who works for Stella Maris, “a non-denominational facility and hospice for the care of psychiatric mental patients” in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, and Bobby’s twenty-year old sister Alicia, a brilliant graduate student at the University of Chicago, and a “resident of this facility on two prior occasions.”

Give credit where it’s due, the psychiatrist and his patient don’t shy away from Big Topics. Here’s just one snippet of conversation; the first paragraph is spoken by Dr. Cohen, the second by Alicia:

            I’m assuming that Satan is not a part of your worldview. Even if you seem to acknowledge something very like evil in the scheme of things. You mentioned Chesterton’s comment.

            Well. I’ve never seen Satan. That doesnt mean he might not show up. What Chesterton doesnt comment on are the peculiarly material interests of God. If you were a wholly spiritual being why would you dabble in the material at all? At judgment day the bodies rise? What is that about? Spirits are disembodied, not unembodied? Christ ascends into heaven as presumably a corporeal being. Encumbering the godhead with a thing it had not previously to endure. It’s hard to know what to make of such lunacy. You can see why Chesterton would steer clear of it.

 It’s not that the book is without interest. Even when Dr. Cohen and Alicia are going deep into the weeds on a particular subject—Schopenhauer, Berkeley, race car driving, “the inner life of an eidolon,” or Alicia’s desire to have an incestuous relationship with her brother—the back and forth is lively and, considering how abstruse some of the subjects are, surprisingly believable as human speech. It’s just that there is so much of it. No doubt scholars and true-blue McCarthy fans will enjoy and ruminate over every last quip and allusion, but for me, it ultimately became a slog

Indeed, reading these two books is a battle. You can’t help rooting for the Old Master, now in his late eighties, to provide American literature with at least one more masterpiece. But despite making the same sort of moves that have worked in the past, he doesn’t quite pull it off.

You can see this ambivalence towards fading greatness in other reviews. Ron Charles in the Post concludes wryly: “Near the end, a friend tells Western, ‘We still don’t know what this is about.’ Get used to it, man.” Writing in the New York Times, John Jeremiah Sullivan considers whether the McCarthy of Passenger “has attained a genuinely prophetic, doom-laden gravitas, or…the writing goes after those very qualities and doesn’t get there, winding up pretentious.’’ Ultimately, Sullivan decides that while there “is bravery involved, especially at heights of style where the difference can be between greatness and straight badness,” McCarthy “teeters more in these new books than in the several novels for which he is judged a great American writer.” Dwight Garner, in the same outlet, describes Stella Maris as “an uncanny, unsettling dream, tuned into the static of the universe.” I’m not sure that’s a book I’d want to read.

Granted, Cormac McCarthy does deserve our respect and gratitude for his past contributions to the Novel, but I would be wary of recommending either of these books to anyone but a genuinely dedicated fan.