We recently said goodbye to the American writer Cormac McCarthy, July 20, 1933 - June 13, 2023. A writer who did not receive a single royalty check from one of his first four books over a period of twenty-eight years. And yet, he kept on. Why? Did he know he was a writer future students of American literature would look at a map and draw a line connecting the names, Twain, Melville, Faulkner – McCarthy? Perhaps. But he never lost sight of what he did have: His faith and his hope, his trust in himself.
All art is storytelling, and there is just one story: I was here. If and when the world wants your art, it’ll find it. Go and ask Melville. And now, too, go and ask McCarthy.
A new McCarthy novel, The Passenger, and what to make of it? “If we are not after 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 upon it.” Which is what McCarthy did with this book. Both things: Reaching to essence, while putting his stamp as a writer upon that searching.
Told from each of their perspectives, Bobby Western mourns the death (suicide) of his younger, schizophrenic sister, Alicia Western, while being pursued by the US government for a crime—possibly, that remains unknown, to us, if not, to him. Shadowing both of them is their father’s past as one of the architects of the atomic bomb.
As always, a McCarthy novel is a joyful ride with words, and here, too, this is true. It is not in the storytelling that this book is a departure from his previous work, it is in the goals of the story itself, as if the story was in no need of its own form: The randomness of life lived within the realm of the unknown while studying its own refection of its own telling as the precision of mathematics and physics look on, unable to offer any relief. But then, a story of grief and loss is always a tragedy, for what we feel a loss for, we are less, it becoming our reality—the lessor of us. Which is this book, the acknowledgment of this. A book without a linear need—no cause and effect here. A book uncaring of the outcome, which is what? Quite simply, it is McCarthy saying, I am a writer, and after a life lived as a writer—asking question to which there are no answers, I still have no answers, and therefore, I am in no need of a form within which to put the pretext of an answer, or the need of a form building to an answer, and I shall not try. Consider: It is a book centered around a missing passenger that is never found. A relationship between a brother and sister that is never defined. A crime that is never named. Questions without answers, the main one being: Are our pasts any more real than the products of a schizophrenic mind? Is the passenger, that’s drowned and never found, a version of ourselves we carry forward? If so, drown them, and let them never be found. Free yourself. Which is what it seems McCarthy has done with this book, to have freed himself as a writer—giving himself permission to reach to more, while being less, and becoming even more in the process. And it reads as if he knew this is what he was writing, and why, and most importantly, when. And I like that, and I tip my hat to him, for having the courage to go out that way.
McCarthy was often criticized for being a writer of male fiction. Or, his inability to write women well. True enough, and something he acknowledged himself. And so, it was with great joy, while reading this book, discovering the wonderfully formed, transgender character, Debussy Fields. A shot at all those who choose to make ignorance and fear their companion. “He watched her until she was lost among the tourists. Men and women alike turning to look after her. He thought that God’s goodness appeared in strange places. Dont close your eyes.”
As for The Passenger’s companion piece, Stella Maris, I liked the idea of this, the breaking out of a character’s insights, not only with respect to filling in The Passenger’s narrative, but for its own sake—more of who she was, and why. And much like The Passenger, McCarthy gets to freewheel into a world that interests him—thoughts he had wanted to share, again, without the concern of normal narrative structures, or the feeling of having to wrap things up, with answers, to anything—a total sense of freedom. I’ll just write. I’ll please myself. And why shouldn’t he have, after a lifetime of writing? Oh, and then there’s this, which is quite something, his last published words:
"I think our time is up.
I know. Hold my hand.
Hold your hand?
Yes. I want you to.
All right. Why?
Because that's what people do when they're waiting for the end of something."
Thanks for the body of work, Cormac McCarthy.
He was here.
And there shall be now no more words falling from his pen.