I’m always conflicted before starting a Cormac McCarthy book. Although he’s one of America’s best writers, his world view tends toward bleakness and nihilism – to an extent that can be off-putting even for a natural-born pessimist like myself. Let’s just say his books have never left me whistling the theme from “Andy Griffith.”
Still, most of them are redeemed by the wisdom, wit and elegance of his prose. For a nihilist, he’s damned careful with his words. I tend to highlight a lot of passages in a McCarthy book. Sometimes, as in “No Country For Old Men,” he’s also pretty good at suspense.
“The Passenger” is nominally about a salvage diver coming across a sunken plane, apparently undamaged and seven passengers still strapped inside. Some of the plane’s avionics have been removed. Unlike “No Country For Old Men,” there’s no big bag of money – but the diver soon comes to realize that one passenger is missing and someone did not want this plane found.
That’s the narrative hook. Good thing there is one, because we also get a lot of all-italic (argh!) chapters in the point of view of the diver’s schizophrenic sister. Magical realism rears its head (argh!). There’s a lot of sharp and funny dialog, but no quotation marks because McCarthy doesn’t like quotation marks (double argh!). There are some windy digressions on quantum physics and string theory. Great writers, apparently, needn’t concern themselves with the convenience of their readers.
I’ve stuck with it though. I’ve put up with a certain amount of literary affectation because I want to know what’s up with that damned plane. And I want to see how the italic narrative of the sister finally intersects with the non-italic one of the diver. Finally, I have to admit that almost every page has its own glimmer of brilliance. More than two-thirds through, it’s been worth the effort.
There is a second volume to this story: “Stella Maris,” which evidently explores the sister’s psychological story more fully. At this point, I’m not all that curious about it. But we’ll see.