“But I will tell you Squire that having read even a few dozen books in common is a force more binding than blood.”
–Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, my life became the stuff of a Cormac McCarthy novel. I was in Mariupol, Ukraine, a city I had reported from over the years. It is now a permanent set from The Road.
The events to which I bore witness transpired in bone-struck Cormac Pentameter peppered with shocking hilarity and gutting one-liners. Part of me remains in that rubble. But I found deliverance in his latest novel, The Passenger, a prescient book about the Westerns, the haunted and brilliant children of a physicist who helped develop the first atomic bomb. Bobby and Alicia Western are surrounded by hilarious misanthropes—real and irreal in a world that seems to be both closing in and slipping away.
“All of history a rehearsal for its own extinction.”
From Mariupol, my photographer Robert Cooper and I headed west at high speed across Ukraine. Just outside of Kherson, we stumbled upon a vast blood ritual—a savage land-grab we were not meant to see. We had driven straight into one of the first major battles of the largest conflict on the continent since WWII.
“There were people who escaped Hiroshima and rushed to Nagasaki to see that their loved ones were safe. Arriving just in time to be incinerated.”
Our driver drove back and forth at a high speed because they were shelling the highway. From the muddy floorboard, I held up my cell phone like a periscope and filmed. Editors love to tell you that no story is worth dying for right before offering you $150 for that story.
As the world ended around us, we ditched our car and hid in the dirt like rodents beneath an abandoned house for 18 hours. I have never been so cold. Men, who might have been cousins, annihilated each other in front of us. I had just learned my wife was pregnant.
“All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.”
At night, armed children crisscrossed the burning countryside causing explosions. Every once in a while, I made eye contact with one of these soldiers. My existence was met with confusion and even doubt. I had never felt like somebody else’s hallucination. The sensation of anti-solipsism has not subsided.
“What are you afraid of? What can you fear that has not already come to pass?
Russian forces took the area. Their tanks rushed past like the cars of a train. Jets came in the night and stopped time. Earthquakes fell from their steel bellies and ruptured the hypoxic silence with advertisements of death.
Modern statecraft is now a matter of phenomenology. A thing that is not can still torture you in a basement.
Just before dawn, the Ukrainians seized a bridge that allowed us to escape. The drive out of Kherson still haunts me. So much of what I saw, heard, and smelled invoked a Cormac McCarthy novel. I had nothing else to compare it with. No one should.
“What else?” is a common refrain in The Passenger employed as a device. What else?
Cormac McCarthy had provided me with a context, even a language, to internalize the things I saw and cannot unsee. Segments of human beings were stacked along the road between the smoking-bombed-out war machines.
“The world’s truth constitutes a vision so terrifying as to beggar the prophecies of the bleakest seer who ever walked it. Once you accept that then the idea that all of this will one day be ground to powder and blown into the void becomes not a prophecy but a promise.”
Kherson is now free. But it will never be free of what happened. “A calamity can be erased by no amount of good. It can only be erased by a worse calamity.”
At the birth of the war, the only ostensible difference between the men killing each other was that they were killing each other. And one side wasn’t interested in killing us. Now, these men are divided by their “kit” and an eternity of violence.
“War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”
What was most surprising was what had not changed. Before February 24th, 2022, humanity, to me, seemed advanced. I was wrong. War is still children killing each other with surplus weapons from the prior century, punctuated by flashes of technologically advanced atrocity and a lot of waiting around.
“People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there”
We made our escape through an authoritarian anachronism—a geopolitical hangover—a non-existent microstate called Transnistria. There we met the Transnistrian KGB. As these blinkered incurious officials interrogated us in broken English, I felt a sense of déjà vu. Not the good kind. I remembered the Mexican police captain in All the Pretty Horses, who says to the two Americans in his custody:
“We can make the truth here. Or we can lose it. but when you leave here it will be too late. Too late for truth. Then you will be in the hands of other parties. Who can say what the truth will be then? At that time?”
Eventually, the KGB let us go. By what truth or calculus I do not know. I suppose they concluded that we were not useful, or that the consequences of our detainment outweighed the benefits. They knew our secret: that we were useless. And though we contrived this secret, it did not mean that it wasn’t true.
Now, I know they let us go because we did not deserve it. Braver men, truer adversaries of their masters, were entering Ukraine as we fled. There was no bribe, but sometimes, I wonder if a price was paid and who paid it.
“Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.”
We crossed the non-existent border of the non-existent state into Moldova. The border is unofficial, though its boundary is undeniable. Modern statecraft is now a matter of phenomenology. A thing that is not can still torture you in a basement.
“How does the never to be differ from what never was?”
We didn’t stop running until Bucharest. By then, we understood that no place would ever be safe. My friend headed back to south Texas. I headed across the Black Sea back to Tbilisi, Georgia, where my wife waited with a soul in her belly. And though we were home, neither of us fully returned.
I felt like an unstable element. As if from that pile of dismembered human rubble, I’d brought back the psychological or theological equivalent of a forever chemical. I’m not unique or special. Like everyone else, I’m trying to process the almost intimate violence of that conflict.
“Suffering is a part of the human condition and must be borne. But misery is a choice.”
Eight months and one night after the war began, The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy was released. I read it over and over. I bought the audiobook and listened at night during my futile attempts at sleep. Something began to change. There was a sort of release. I suppose I feel seen. In the “hadal deeps” of that novel, I find hope.
I am not alone in this. Reddit user NoxZ recently posted: “There’s a lot to unpack in The Passenger and far smarter people than me will take a long time to do that. I’m just thankful it’s here at all. I was beginning to lose hope.”
It was good timing, this hope. The birth of my child was as imminent as a Russian invasion declared by declassified US intel. But to know that a thing approaches does not diminish the magnitude of its arrival.
Cormac McCarthy doesn’t want you to like him or try to visit his house. His work is a reminder that you live in a brutal world of exponential uncertainty and decay.
As my wife suffered a prolonged labor, I began this essay at her bedside late one night in a Georgian hospital. I was a desperate manic mongrel, and I needed to dig. I didn’t curate the quotes. I mined impossible minerals of uncut truth and extracted their adamant from impenetrable plates of context in the murky Cormac McCanon.
When they inserted an epidural into my wife’s spine, something went wrong. The baby’s heart rate dropped to 80. Time stopped. Then his heart rate jumped to 180, and panic set in. Emergency measures were needed.
I leaned on Cormac McCarthy like crutches. When my wife was wheeled away for an emergency C-section, the final line of The Passenger came to me:
“He knew that on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly upon his pallet in an unknown tongue.”
A familiar eternity passed. Clocks are absurd little devices. To presume that a rudimentary machine capable only of repeating itself has the capacity to measure time is unforgivable arrogance.
Then I heard the infant’s infuriate howl. The child was alive. There were lines for that too like, “Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden,” from The Road.
The mother and the child were delivered back to me healthy and perfect. Yet I know such fortune tempts the wrath of the gods. “They’re a testy lot by all accounts.” So, as they slept and I did not, I continued my excavations.
The child’s name is Ethan. When Ethan’s father met him, “He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” –The Road.
I’ve leaned on the novels of Cormac McCarthy for as long as I’ve been leaning. In 2006, I read The Road from a hospital bed in Charleston, SC, where I was being treated for a lung infection. I have the disease cystic fibrosis. The hospitalizations were frequent going back as far as I do. I spent some of the roughest nights of my life with one of his novels in my hand mainlining the medicine laced between the lines.
If the proper authorities ever caught wind of the narcotic potency of such novels, all books would be banned, repackaged, and sold by prescription to inhabitants of wealthy countries.
Reading The Road, Suttree, and Outer Dark on those maddening plastic mattresses hovering above the bleached linoleum was a reminder that things could be worse. If McCarthy could stash poetic elevation and transformative prose in such awful worlds, I figured I could find it.
In college, I gleaned that Blood Meridian is a life guide for the futile brutality of Western civilization. Is there anything more distinctly American than MacGyvering your own gunpowder out of piss and bat shit to kill a bunch of Native Americans?
The Road might be the only truthful instructional manual for fatherhood I’ve come across.
When Ethan asks me, “What’s the bravest thing you ever did?”
I will cough and spit blood onto the road. “Getting up this morning,” I will say to the boy.
I will tell him “To carry the fire.” And when he says he doesn’t know where the fire is.
I will tell him, “Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”
“Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.
You forget some things, dont you?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.”
Once I wondered if it was insane to deliberately cause a new human. Now I wonder if it is insane not to.
Either way, I won’t be held accountable at least not according to Bobby Western, the deep-sea salvage diver and protagonist of The Passenger. Bobby’s father was one of the men responsible for creating the first atomic bomb.
“Fathers are always forgiven. In the end they are forgiven. Had it been women who dragged the world through these horrors there would be a bounty on them.”
Compared to inventing nuclear weapons, blundering through warzones seems benign. But the thing about being forgiven is you have to be around for it. This requires being alive.
“Will children yet to come harbor a longing for a thing they cannot even name? The legacy of the word is a fragile thing for all its power.”
Visionaries of Universal Ruin
In the copious reviews of The Passenger, I have yet to find any that points out how timely the book is. McCarthy started writing The Passenger in the 1980s, and yet it is more relevant on the day of its release than any novel of his ever was. This was not intentional. Or at least not for the 89-year-old Cormac McCarthy, for whom literary topicality is measured in centuries. One can only hope the realization of the novelist as literary prophet is a long time coming.
If you had told me back in 2007, that there wouldn’t be a new Cormac McCarthy novel for 15 years, that Russia would be flirting with nuclear war, and that McCarthy’s new book would have me laughing so loudly I’d wake up my kid, I would have been alarmed on multiple fronts.
For all its hilarity, The Passenger is ultimately a book about survivor’s guilt.
“I think he was ashamed. That was another world. He’d fought for a lost cause and his friends died had in silence and in blood all about him and he had lived… In the end it became who he was.”
Fortunately, as humanity barrels toward annihilation, the impossibly eloquent and irreverent John Sheddan aka “Long John” aka “Beelzebubba” aka “The Long One” is along for the ride. This tragically-endearing misanthrope is a modern Sir John Falstaff who haunts the streets of New Orleans like Ignatius J. Reilly and drops truths like:
“When the onset of universal night is finally acknowledged as irreversible even the coldest cynic will be astonished at the celerity with which every rule and stricture shoring up this creaking edifice is abandoned and every aberrancy embraced. It should be quite a spectacle.”
Reading The Passenger is like freebasing solipsism. The heart of the novel is Bobby Western’s incestuous love for his dead younger sister Alicia Western. “Shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire,” [The Road] the siblings share this solipsistic domain. They even share hallucinogenic visitors.
One might reasonably conclude that Cormac McCarthy expects a lot from his readers. But to call The Passenger a pretentious book is a misdiagnosis, though an understandable one.
The antagonist of Bobby Western’s tale is a shadowy agency with mysterious motives. It claims to be the IRS and meticulously seizes control of every asset and aspect of Bobby’s life without explanation. A singularly American nightmare.
“The truth is that everyone is under arrest. Or soon will be. They dont have to restrict your movements. They just have to know where you are.”
The hallucinations that haunt Alicia are so officiously tedious, they might as well be real. Meanwhile, Bobby’s friends, especially the Southern types, are larger than life. They seem too puckish and eccentric to be real. But Southern characters like these very much do exist and McCarthy has done them justice.
“Without malefactors the world of the righteous is robbed of all meaning.”
The humor of The Passenger is so unexpected you don’t notice the gut-wrenching poetry of the next line until it clocks you in the jaw—or fires off a high-caliber round of rat shot just above your head to kill a cockroach in Louisiana. It is easy to forget this is a Cormac McCarthy novel. After all, it’s been 43 years since Gene Harrogate was arrested for sodomizing watermelons with the publication of Suttree.
On account of his fancy pedigree, Long John calls Bobby Western, “Squire.” Bobby calls him a “Visionary of universal ruin,” a well-earned appellation:
“Real trouble doesn’t begin in a society until boredom has become its most general feature. Boredom will drive even quiet minded people down paths they’d never imagined.”
In The Passenger, characters often repeat the term, “What else?” when a character is offering crucial insight. This isn’t just to avoid writing dialogue prompts and transitions. The “What else?” isn’t there for Cormac McCarthy. It’s there for you. McCarthy is debriefing these characters by speeding up time.
There is an ongoing debate in the Cormac McCanon. Is the last of all men a solipsist?
“How would you know if you were the last man on earth?
“It wouldn’t make any difference. When you die it’s the same as if everybody else did too.”
Long John asks:
“When we and all our works are gone together with every memory of them and every machine in which such memory could be encoded and stored and the Earth is not even a cinder, for whom then will this be a tragedy? Where would such a being be found? And by whom?”
There is of course an alternative theory. There always is: That Bobby is stuck in a coma from a car crash while racing in Europe years before the events in the novel. And if he is, like the last man on earth, there is no difference between a solipsist and a man dreaming a life in a coma.
Considering McCarthy’s anti-punctuation fetish, Bobby may just be irretrievably lost in a pair of commas.
Beneath the surface of The Passenger and its sister Stella Maris, tender wisdom is embedded in the murky depths. Bobby’s transgender friend Debussy Fields is the closest thing he has to a (living) love interest. She tells him, “I know that to be female is an older thing even than to be human. I want to be as old as I can be. Atavistically feminine.”
There is no living novelist like Cormac McCarthy. And there’s a reason for it. If a writer is the sum of his work, then it is not easy being Cormac McCarthy. Yet he has managed to do so for 89 years—to go places few writers can. Even fewer make it back. There is something altruistic, almost heroic about it.
Publishing a book like The Passenger at this point in his career isn’t just a risk. It is an act of defiance—a gesture akin to faith. Few writers have portrayed a dimmer view of mankind. But at the heart of the “demonium” hides an almost-naïve optimism.
McCarthy is more monk than literary mandarin. And yet the ambition of his work lends itself to hilarious parody. At times even Cormac McCarthy sounds like he is deliberately imitating Cormac McCarthy. Long John says to Bobby Western:
“I had this recurring dream of you. One of two. Alone on the ocean floor in your indiarubber unionsuit. Fleeing some yawning subduction. You struggled in those hadal deeps like a man wading through mucilage while the pugs of your leaden shoes closed slowly in the loam behind you. The plates creaking. The clouds of silt rolling slowly up to engulf you. Your lamp had eked out and you were left to make your way in the eerie light of the ancient fumaroles smoking in the distance like standing candles. There was something more than poetic in your flight before those hellish sealamps out of whose sulphurous womb it well may be that life itself was brokered in the long ago.”
In a 2017 interview, Cormac McCarthy told The Paris Review something astonishing:
I entertain most nights. In the afternoon you wear the mud mask of your being. And then the guests arrive and you are a new thing. It is the unspoken promise of nightfall. It takes time. Time that hunts you, time that is calamity.
That this interview never happened—it was an April Fools’ joke—seems immaterial.
In the 40 years McCarthy spent writing The Passenger, it seems the book was writing him. The result of the novel is the life of the man—a proof erecting its own theorem.
“We dont move through the days, Squire. They move through us.”
It is safe to say that the parts of The Passenger about math aren’t really about math. They aren’t not about math either. They are about both.
“The issue was the deep core of the world as number.”
The characters and ideas exist in a quantum state. Bobby and Alicia are both dead and alive. Science will save human civilization and destroy it. In the final pages, Bobby remembers something Alicia told him.
“In the end, she had said, there will be nothing that cannot be simulated. And this will be the final abridgment of privilege. This is the world to come. Not some other. The only alternate is the surprise in those antic shapes burned into the concrete.”
Is she talking about humans living in a simulation or dying in a nuclear holocaust? Both.
Long John, who aptly dies of liver failure, appears as a ghost for one last conversation with Bobby. He covers a lot of ground.
Long John on quantum entanglement, “If we are not after the essence, Squire, then what are we after? And I’ll defer to your view that we cannot uncover such a thing without putting our stamp on it.”
Long John on Determinism, “I have come to suspect that the ground we walk is less of our choosing than we imagine.”
Bobby concludes that forgiveness is singular. The problem is he can’t forgive himself.
“Mercy is in the province of the person alone. There is mass hatred and mass grief. Mass vengeance and even mass suicide. But there is no mass forgiveness. There is only you.”
The Western siblings face the apocalyptic and psychological consequences of merging pure math with theoretical physics, as represented by their father. Alicia, the savant, has taken mathematics to places it was not meant to go. This is a family tradition. At the end, where the book begins, Alicia rejects mathematics and ends her life as the two are immutably intertwined.
“What she believed ultimately was that the very stones of the earth had been wronged.”
McCarthy is pulling up the hood of Western civilization. There is a kind of benevolence and generosity here that is not in his earlier work. The master offers a glimpse into a process he can explain only in reference to itself.
“That the search for its definition was inexorably buried in and subject to the definition it sought. Or that the world’s reality could not be a category among others therein contained.”
Alicia has a recurring hallucination of a dwarfish deformed sparkplug of a humanoid with flippers for hands who talks like a hard-boiled 1950s detective from another dimension. She calls him the “Thalidomide Kid” or “The Kid. He may or may not be the manifestation of a stillborn child of Bobby and Alicia.
“Not every ectromelic hallucination who shows up in your boudoir on your birthday is out to get you.”
Their manic metaphysical bickering makes up much of the novel.
“You will never know what the world is made of. The only thing that’s certain is that it’s not made of the world. As you close upon some mathematical description of reality you cant help but lose what is being described. Every inquiry displaces what is addressed. A moment in time is a fact, not a possibility.”
Alicia began a love affair with her older brother around age 13 when he was home from college. The siblings know they are paying a price for this along with the sins of their father. They just aren’t sure who is keeping the books.
For 60 years, beginning with The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy has explored social decay and taboo with the radiant darkness of his poetic prose.
When Alicia explains why she does not need to write down her work, something unique is at play. Cormac McCarthy is talking about writing—where the words come from—a process that everyone knows but that few can explain, and even fewer can perform—not unlike pure mathematics or Grothendieck’s algebra.
Yet only through a conversation with a hallucination can this be put into words. McCarthy’s message is that no writer emerges from the process clean. A price is paid for the words. There is a strange brutality to it. Sacrifices are made.
“So why don’t you write it down?
“You really want to talk about this?
“Sure,” says the flipper-handed kid.
“Alright, it’s not just that I dont have to write things down. There’s more to it than that. What you write down becomes fixed. It takes on the constraints of any tangible entity. It collapses into a reality estranged from the realm of its creation. It’s a marker. A roadsign. You have stopped to get your bearings, but at a price. You’ll never know where it might have gone if you’d left it alone to go there.
The Passenger is not about literary legacy. It is a gift. Cormac McCarthy is leaving something behind. The soon-to-be nonagenarian knows that this novel and its follow-up coda, Stella Maris, could be his final offerings. Like a fretful father, there is so much he wants to say before he goes. So he attempts to cram the theory of existence into a single novel.
Many will miss the point of The Passenger. They will claim it is deliberately esoteric, gratuitous, and pedantic. For critics hunting live big game, Cormac McCarthy is the consummate literary trophy. But The Passenger is not a David Foster Wallace-esque work of excess and indulgence. The Passenger is a product of compression and 40 years of reduction. Its author remains an aspiring novelist.
Cormac McCarthy never cashes in on the apocalypse. That would be too easy. His work is more of a corrective for it. Like evil, grand catastrophes are banal. McCarthy is more interested in the social decay that causes Armageddon or surfaces in its wake.
For those born in a time when humans no longer fear nuclear annihilation, Cormac McCarthy provides a language to comprehend the magnitude and abstract terror of such an event—the gravity of an unthinkable revelation.
“Those who survived would often remember these horrors with a certain aesthetic to them. In that mycoidal phantom blooming in the dawn like an evil lotus and in the melting of solids not heretofore known to do so stood a truth that would silence poetry a thousand years. Like an immense bladder, they would say. Like some sea thing. Wobbling slightly on the near horizon. Then the unspeakable noise. They saw birds in the dawn sky ignite and explode soundlessly and fall in long arcs earthward like burning party favors.”
Mankind is in its own hands, the last place any species should hope to find itself.
McCarthy has spent the last two decades surrounding himself with physicists and mathematicians at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), and it shows. But it would be tremendously shortsighted to write off the theoretical discussions in The Passenger as posturing. McCarthy has always used fiction to probe concepts and characters on the edge of the vast uncertainty in which we all reside. The math and physics in The Passenger are not a departure, they are a continuation—perhaps even a warning.
McCarthy isn’t the first to dive into the ominous implications of the paradoxes and anomalies that loom in the far reaches of pure math and theoretical physics When We Cease to Understand the World. But few have given it such urgency.
The Kid says to Alicia:
“Nobody wants to talk about the speed of dark. What’s in a shadow? Do they move along at the speed of the light that casts them? How deep do they get? How far down can you clamp your calipers? You scribbled somewhere in the margins that when you lose a dimension you’ve given up all claims to reality. Save for the mathematical. Is there a route here from the tangible to the numerical that hasn’t been explored?… Maybe you’d better go eat. You need to keep your strength up if you aim to wrest the secrets of creation from the gods.”
Cormac McCarthy doesn’t want you to like him or try to visit his house. His work is a reminder that you live in a brutal world of exponential uncertainty and decay. And that the only way out is through. As in life, meaning must be earned. And the only meaning is that there is none.
Like the father of the Western siblings, the novelist takes us by the hand and “maps the world of the subatomic particles he [is] attempting to explain: the collisions, the weighted routes.”
One might reasonably conclude that Cormac McCarthy expects a lot from his readers. But to call The Passenger a pretentious book is a misdiagnosis, though an understandable one. A book like The Passenger has not been published in a long time. Readers are not used to it.
It is not that such books are not being written; they aren’t getting printed. A book like Blood Meridian, a tome of trigger warning, would not be published in 2022. The Passenger was published because Cormac McCarthy wrote it. It’s a good thing he did.
Like Bobby Western, the novelist is navigating a riverbed in zero visibility—feeling out the contours of the mysterious plane wreck that is our civilization. Like Bobby, and for good reason, he is terrified of what he finds. We don’t get the whole picture. The mystery goes unsolved for the story to remain true.
For 60 years, beginning with The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy has explored social decay and taboo with the radiant darkness of his poetic prose. It was up to us to find the light.
Even at his bleakest, he is holding back—leaving room for hope in the inconceivable tragedy. He provides us with the tools for us to fashion that hope or with the realization that we must let it fall into place like the ashes of a nuclear winter.
“When one has nothing left make ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
Cormac McCarthy is not going to hold our hand. He knows that we must carry on no matter what lies ahead. In the words of John Sheddan, The Long One:
“To prepare for any struggle is largely a work of unburdening oneself. If you carry your past into battle you are riding to your death. Austerity lifts the heart and focuses the vision. Travel light. A few ideas are enough. Every remedy for loneliness only postpones it. And that day is coming in which there will be no remedy at all. I wish you calm waters, Squire. I always did.”
What a strange thing it is to feel indebted to a fictional character. Upon reading a novel, there is no reaction more profound than gratitude. The world may not owe this to Cormac McCarthy. But I do.
“He thought that God’s goodness appeared in strange places. Don’t close your eyes.”
Of the 117 billion human beings to set foot on earth, I bear the burden of one. And though these books are heavy and my lungs coughed raw, I keep pace with the child at my side. I don’t carry the boy or his burdens. He must learn to.
I am no survivor. But I am alive. That is more than most can say. I embrace the darkness. I travel light.