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“The Passenger” and companion novel, “Stella Maris” follow the lives of Bobby and Alicia Western, siblings. Both prodigies of physics and math who have abandoned science. They are son and daughter of a famous physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project along side of Oppenheimer to build the Atomic Bombs. A subplot which haunts both siblings and readers.
“The Passenger” opening scene has Bobby, a commercial diver, descending upon a plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico to recover the bodies within. The plane is sealed and requires an acetylene torch to peel back the door. Inside Bobby discovers a mystery. The flight data recording device and one passenger on the manifest are missing. But how? The plane was sealed, with no other means of egress.
Bobby’s unfortunate discovery, one he wasn’t intended to make, lands him in trouble with the authorities…CIA, FBI, Treasury, NSA, or foreign agency is unclear. He is tailed, interrogated, threatened, his apartment is trashed, and life made into a living hell. An expensive Maserati sports car is confiscated and all his bank accounts frozen leaving him literally destitute with nowhere to go.
The backdrop for “The Passenger” is New Orleans where Bobby is a frequent customer of a number of bars occupied by some really weird characters that he calls friends. The repartee between these acquaintances is at the pointy end of intellectualism. Some of it actually makes sense, but you may have to read it a couple of times to make head-or-tail. Sadly, it is during these digressions we learn his sister, Alicia, has died by suicide. References to her psychotic behavior and episodes of hallucinations are peppered throughout the book. Allusions to Bobby’s love for his sister and attempts at intervention not surprisingly creep into the narrative.
“Stella Maris”, which is to be read after “The Passenger” follows a time in Alicia’s life before her suicide, when she committed herself to a mental health facility, Stella Maris. It is a singular dialog over multiple sessions between Alicia and her psychologist. It is thick with philosophical explorations into the truths and lies of reality, perception, mathematics, and the purpose, or lack-thereof, of life. After reading “Stella Maris” I wonder if Cormac McCarthy was not himself a genius, of sorts, one with a tortured soul. I’m not sure who else could write such a book.
The writing style for both books has a tight, but bizarre, cadence, almost fragmented. At times I wasn’t sure what I was reading, and you will find the lack of quotation marks both annoying and confusing. McCarthy has been compared to other American literary icons. I’m not sure that he belongs in the cast of these elite. Then again, I’m not so sure he doesn’t. Regardless, I couldn’t put these two books down. And if you were to ask me why, I wouldn’t be able to explain.
If you have a desire to read something truly novel then I recommend these two books to you.
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