No Prayer for Such a Thing: On Cormac McCarthy’s “The Passenger”
By Peggy EllsbergMarch 28, 2023
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy
In this novel published in the author’s 90th year, the male protagonist, Bobby Western, turns out to be a new kind of hero, a self-denying knight of faith, living in a windmill, lighting candles in a Catholic church, praying. Bobby’s story begins with a young girl, self-slaughtered (to use Hamlet’s term), hanging in a fresh snowscape in the woods near her once-Catholic psychiatric hospital on Christmas morning. Her frozen hair is blonde, her dress white with a red sash. A hunter comes upon the body. The hanged girl’s head is bowed, her hands turned outward like those of “ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered.” The hunter kneels and also bows his head, thinking he should pray. But a species of agnosticism overcomes him, and he can find “no prayer for such a thing.” Here, McCarthy crafts a scene with Catholic props: bowing, kneeling, the liturgical color for Christmas (white) paired with the liturgical color for martyrdom (red).
The girl, age 20, is eventually revealed to be Bobby’s sister Alicia, the love of his life, who is ludicrously brilliant. She is considered one of the top mathematicians in the world, having gone straight from her parochial school in Tennessee to the University of Chicago at age 12. Early in The Passenger, one of Bobby’s deviant and charming familiars, pontificating in a bar, describes her as “drop dead gorgeous,” a “flat out trainwrecker.” She is also innocent enough to break your heart. And Bobby, a lapsed physicist and a reticent pilgrim who drinks tea, drives around, and pets his cat, is in a state of intractable grief after Alicia’s death.
Bobby’s character resonates with that of John Grady Cole from McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992), though John Grady’s father was a small-scale Texas rancher and Bobby’s father worked on the Manhattan Project, which altered human history by creating a weapon with the genocidal energy of countless Auschwitzes. Unlike John Grady, Bobby pursued a PhD at Caltech. But like John Grady and Huck Finn, Bobby lights out for the territories. The two genius siblings Bobby and Alicia are reminiscent of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (1961). Zooey nurses his younger sister Franny through a crisis that some readers have called a nervous breakdown, assuaged only by great spiritual masters like Kierkegaard and the Buddha. Like John Grady as well as Franny and Zooey, the Western siblings are interested in God.
Bobby and Alicia could find no one but each other for authentic companionship, yet their love never seems creepy. It burns with a hard flame that is never physically consummated. “We can do whatever we want,” says Alicia. “No […] we cant,” Bobby corrects. She tells her shrink that she would rather die than live without Bobby. One critic reviewing The Passenger has speculated that Bobby, too, would have taken his own life after Alicia died, except that his highly intelligent ruminations on human consciousness led him to believe that God did not will that. “Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!” says Hamlet.
After Alicia’s suicide, Bobby loses his mooring and works for a while as a salvage diver in the Gulf of Mexico, a spooky enterprise involving deep descents into dark waters. He visits bars in New Orleans, lives in single rooms with his cat, hides out at the beach in an abandoned shack, eats roadkill, becomes so skinny that his clothes “hang on him.” As the story proceeds, Bobby also winters over in an unheated house in remote Idaho, cogitating on particle physics. He is a physicist but also a passenger, carried through the narrative by love, grief, and sheer stamina.
Although I cannot prove that McCarthy knew Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, Bobby’s gentle agnosticism (he says “I dont know” countless times) echoes for me Percy’s wandering hero, Binx Bolling. Binx conducts a Kierkegaardian “horizontal search,” which includes a great deal of not knowing, culminating in the days before Ash Wednesday. Bobby’s search, from New Orleans to Tennessee to Idaho to a small island off the coast of Spain, rules his otherwise unruly narrative. Binx settles for “everydayness.” Bobby will settle in a windmill on the island of San Javier, hanging around a little Catholic church and learning how to pray. At one point, “Long” John Sheddan, Bobby’s most articulate and fascinating friend, tells him that he had taken him for an atheist. Bobby responds, “No. I don’t have any religion.” But one thing Bobby knows for sure is that, at the moment of death, he will see his sister’s face.
The Western siblings are identified as vaguely Jewish, though their creator endows them with strong Catholic sensibilities. The most sympathetically cast of all the secondary characters in The Passenger, a trans woman named Debussy Fields, encounters God in Alcoholics Anonymous, then reads Pascal. She tells Bobby about it as they sit in a restaurant. After they part, he thinks about stumbling upon God’s goodness. “Dont close your eyes,” he tells himself—and, of course, us.
In her final soliloquy in Stella Maris (2022), the companion novel to The Passenger, Alicia says that she would choose to die of exposure and starvation in the mountains of Romania because that was the home of an ancestor: “The water would taste extraordinary. It would taste like music […] and I would pray.” When she died, she says, she would want to become the “eucharist” for the animals who find her body. This ending is stunning. Read by the virtuoso Julia Whelan in the audiobook version, the narrative is immediately followed by an extraordinary performance of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor for violin. Whoever made that creative decision deserves a standing ovation.
In Stella Maris, Alicia’s therapist asks if she believes in the collective unconscious. She suggests that Carl Jung, the early-20th-century engineer of the concept, is a total moron. Yet the collective unconscious hovers over both novels, which conduct conversations with each other and the universe, recurrent topics including not only numerals and photons but also the devastating consciousness of the atomic age and of tragic love. When Bobby inquires if Alicia believes in the afterlife, she replies that she “[does] not discount such a thing.” McCarthy has previously helped us encounter the collective unconscious. In All the Pretty Horses, John Grady understands the souls of horses thus: “[T]he horses were wary and moved with great circumspection carrying in their blood as they did the recollection of this and other places where horses once had been and would be again.” Bobby and Alicia, for all their brainy acquisitions, both want to live out their lives in remote locations, praying.
The character with the most speaking lines in The Passenger is a grotesque entity, Alicia’s spectral sidekick, the Thalidomide Kid. The Kid embodies one of McCarthy’s signature devices: oracular figures—sages, carnival performers—who emerge from apparently nowhere (except, perhaps, the collective unconscious) to prophesy and preach. In The Crossing (1994), young cowboy Billy is attacked by bandits who try to kill his horse Nino, who lies on the ground bleeding. Soon, a band of “gypsies” (“They wore necklaces and silver bracelets and some wore hooplets of gold in their ears and they called out to him”) appears, dragging an airplane: “It was of some ancient vintage […] little more than a skeleton with sunbleached shreds of linen the color of stewed rhubarb.”
Billy’s encounter with this group lasts for 14 pages, during which, over an open fire, the oracular Rafael brews a grassy tea and pours it through a length of hose, into the dying horse. This brings Nino back to full life. It is one of my favorite passages in the canon of American literature. Departing, Rafael, brimming with wisdom, says that “the world cannot be quit for it is eternal in whatever form as are all things within it.” There are archetypes, and they are eternal.
Meanwhile, the Thalidomide Kid, garrulous, hypomanic, a whitewater trip of puns and curses, reminds Alicia that she once annoyed her grammar-school nuns by reciting Thomas Aquinas in Latin. Some readers have accepted the Kid as proof of Alicia’s alleged schizophrenia. But never, not once, does either McCarthy or Alicia refer to the Kid as a hallucination. He presides over the collective unconscious in this book when he pays a lengthy visit to Bobby in a dream, years after Alicia’s death. Are Bobby and Alicia so bound by deep consciousness and karmic affinity that they share the same obnoxious freak?
We leave Bobby, who reminds us of the famous picaro Don Quixote, living in a windmill on a remote island. McCarthy renders him “[a]lone in the world,” though there are birds overhead, dogs on the beach, a dwarf, a shopkeeper, and several random little mules. Rather, Bobby is interacting with people from the other side. It’s Holy Week. He meets “the long one,” John Sheddan, who has died of hepatitis C and drugs, in an empty theater. Sheddan calls Bobby “Squire,” recalling the chivalric code McCarthy relied on in All the Pretty Horses. McCarthy narrates his biblical parataxis in a rush: “and … and … and …” By lantern light just before dawn, Bobby writes a letter to his dead sister: “I miss you more than I can bear. Then he signed his name.”
Peggy Ellsberg is a poet and scholar who teaches English at Barnard College. She is the author of Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press, 1987) and editor of The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings (Plough, 2017).
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