Few recent books have been as eagerly awaited as the pair of novels that Cormac McCarthy published in succession late last year. McCarthy, one of America’s most celebrated living writers, last published a novel in 2006, his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road. After a hiatus of over 15 years, McCarthy brought out The Passenger in late October 2022, followed six weeks later by a companion volume, Stella Maris.
The closely linked novels—which really form a single family narrative, in two parts—tell the story of Bobby and Alicia Western, children of a scientist who had worked at Los Alamos to develop the atomic bomb. They are devoted to each other, in part because of a difficult home life: their parents divorced, both dying eventually of cancer and leaving the children in the care of grandparents. The siblings are also thrown together because of their difficulty fitting in anywhere else. Both are preternaturally intelligent, with few real peers. Bobby goes to study at Stanford before dropping out in order to race cars in Europe, where he suffers a serious accident and remains for a long time in a coma. As The Passenger begins, he is working as a salvage diver. Alicia is a prodigy, one of the top mathematical minds in the world, but also suffers from schizophrenia. She has recurring visions of fantastic, carnivalesque visitors who torment her.
“Close,” however, does not begin to describe Bobby and Alicia’s relationship. They are in love, and their love for each other is the tragic center around which the two novels rotate. Early in The Passenger, a friend named Sheddan warns a woman that Bobby is not available. Asked whether he’s gay, Sheddan replies, “It’s worse than that…. He’s in love with his sister.” Similarly, in Stella Maris Alicia tells her therapist that she had realized years earlier that she loved her brother “in spite of the laws of Heaven. And that I would never love anyone else.” When pressed later, she repeats, “There wasnt anyone else. There never would be. There wasnt for him either.” Whether they have consummated this incestuous relationship remains unclear. Sheddan believes that they have. Alicia, however, asserts to her therapist that, despite her best efforts and to her lasting dismay, Bobby had refused to take that ultimate step.
The plot of these novels is easily told. The Passenger opens with a hunter discovering the body of Alicia, who has committed suicide on Christmas morning. This event, about which we learn more only in Stella Maris, remains in the background as we shift to Bobby, on a salvage mission for a sunken plane that has crashed off the coast of New Orleans. He and his partner find a mystery: the plane’s black box is missing, as are the pilot’s flight bag and, most perplexingly, one of the passengers. Soon Bobby is being questioned by a pair of vaguely menacing investigators, possibly FBI agents, although their identity never becomes clear. After learning that his apartment has been searched, he goes on the lam. For the rest of the book he tries to avoid discovery as his bank accounts are frozen and his car impounded, while the net draws tighter. Finally he flees to the south of Spain to live out his days in a secluded windmill. Neither the original plane crash nor the mysterious investigation of Bobby, which may have something to do with his father’s work on the bomb, are ever really clarified; this lack of resolution is a weakness, even if plot is not really the point of these novels.