A still from ‘No Country for Old Men,’ a 2007 American neo-Western thriller based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name (Alamy Stock Photo).

I have lately come into possession of a fact that threatens my very sense of things. It is this: Cormac McCarthy is funny. Not just incidentally, not just as a bit of leavening in an otherwise unrelieved gloom, but through to his core. A gallows humor was always right there, a fascination with the unspeakable and the obscene that quickly compounds into camp, and a satirical vision of American history that, in its nasty accuracy, approaches the work of Armando Iannucci, George Romero, or the Coen brothers (who made a masterpiece from one of his least substantial novels). I am looking again at the man’s entire career in the light of this revelation, noticing sharp bits of dialogue, nice ironies to which the overall blackness of his fictional universe blinded me. Maybe he was even kidding in 1992 when he told a New York Times writer that Proust and Henry James, being insufficiently concerned with death (?!), were “not literature” (?!!!).

I first realized how funny McCarthy is while reading Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985), an infamously beautiful and gory novel in which a gang of well-armed moral children carry out organized atrocities (“raids”) in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. They are led by the Judge, a hairless giant who lustily eulogizes their adventures in a voice that combines Faulkner and Schopenhauer with Twain’s Duke and Dauphin. He participates in their depredations, and commits many of his own. He is respectable, pretentious, and infinitely worse than they are: they follow instinct and the bloodcurdling mood swings of young men at war, but he endlessly theorizes about why all their depredations are necessary, before finally turning on them too. Now maybe I’ve been listening to too much Chapo Trap House, but I’m not sure I can think of a better metaphor for the relationship between those who have inflicted and suffered the violence of American history and the “nation” that re-narrates their sordid little odyssey as the Conquest of the West. It’s a brutal joke, and, as always with McCarthy, it comes with a certain amount of kitsch—not so much an evening redness in the West as a thick smudge of purple on the page. But it works. 

In The Passenger and Stella Maris, his paired—or entangled—new novels, he broadens his repertoire of jokes, and of many other things. The novels concern Alicia and Bobby Western, the daughter and son of a Manhattan Project physicist. The action takes place during the 1970s and early 1980s, though McCarthy writes with a physicist’s disrespect for linear time. Alicia, and occasionally Bobby, suffer from hallucinations involving a troupe of carnival characters who are led by a disabled and foul-mouthed young man whom Alicia calls the Thalidomide Kid. She calls him that because he has flippers where we might expect hands. The Thalidomide Kid tells a lot of dad jokes—many of which raised a chuckle from me, though I’m an easy mark. (I was moved at the time by McCarthy’s last novel, the bestselling 2006 apocalyptic picaresque The Road, which in hindsight seems a rather threadbare thing, a sort of Chicken Soup for the Prepper’s Soul.) More intriguing is the Kid’s love of puns and wordplay—the language, if you ask some people, of the unconscious. 

In The Passenger and Stella Maris, his paired—or entangled—new novels, he broadens his repertoire of jokes, and of many other things.

Alicia, whose mostly hostile conversations with a flustered and inappropriately flirty therapist make up almost the entirety of Stella Maris, would probably resist such a reading of her situation. Indeed, she resists almost any reading of any situation. She is a genius, a math prodigy. Answers are just new questions for her. She is more brilliant even than Bobby, who gives up physics to drive race cars—during the early 1970s of Stella Maris, he has crashed one, and Alicia believes that he will die. Her suicide, which seems to take place right after Stella Maris (her body is recovered in the opening scene of The Passenger), may represent her effort to join him. (Many readers have already noted that the Westerns’ situation resembles that of Romeo and Juliet: the boy’s seeming death leads to the girl’s real one.)

Early in The Passenger, we witness a conversation between Alicia and the Kid—it seems to take place not long before she kills herself—in which she is said to have called the Kid a “spectral operator.” A math dictionary helpfully informs me that a spectral operator is used for “mapping” a particular kind of space “into itself.” The Kid is mapping an otherwise inaccessible part of Alicia onto herself. We know that McCarthy is mystified by the creative powers of the unconscious. Why, he asks in his 2017 essay “The Kekulé Problem,” was the German chemist August Kekulé able to dream the structure of the benzene molecule when he didn’t yet consciously “know” it? McCarthy proposes that the unconscious is so ancient that language itself strikes it as a recent imposition; it knows more than we do, but cannot reach us by our everyday medium of communication. The Kid’s awkwardness, his aggression, and his riddling habits of speech may represent a diplomatic compromise between the taciturn unconscious and the word-ridden conscious. 


Another situation that Alicia refuses to read in the obvious-but-correct way is the one that gives these novels—and these siblings’ lives—whatever narrative arc they have: Bobby and Alicia are in love. Bobby falls first, as we learn from The Passenger, when his sister is still (ugh) a prepubescent child. Alicia, on reaching adolescence, falls equally in love with him: she haltingly tells the story in Stella Maris. This being the early 1970s, he isn’t too concerned about the fact that he’s twenty-one and she’s fourteen when she announces her feelings, but the small issue that she’s his sister continues to rankle his conscience. He does the right thing, refusing to marry or (on my reading) sleep with her. (Readers disagree about nearly every interpretable element of these novels, but I’m sure about this detail at least. Alicia’s grief seems to me the grief of a person who wants what she can never have, rather than the guilty, aroused sadness of a person who wants a second helping of forbidden fruit.) As Alicia and Bobby are both conversant with modern physics, it may well have occurred to Bobby—as it did to me—that his attraction to the pre-adolescent Alicia, however quiet he kept it, acted upon her despite his intentions, that it pushed her into a reciprocal love, as an observer influences the position of a particle. Certainly he is haunted by guilt. Throughout The Passenger, a significantly longer novel than Stella Maris, he acts with little regard for his own survival, replacing race-car driving (itself hardly a career for the cautious) with salvage diving.

If McCarthy can’t quite survive that comparison, he submits himself to it in a way that evokes sympathy, and warmth, and a little awe. Those are also the feelings with which I read these books.

Early in that novel, he and his team investigate a suspicious plane crash. The navigation panel is missing; one survivor seems to have escaped; all news about the plane is kept out of the papers. Not long after his dive, Bobby is visited at home by inquisitive men with badges who dress, he remarks, “like Mormons.” (To me, that spells CIA.) Then the IRS comes after him for money he doesn’t owe. Someone ransacks his room. The steps he takes to protect himself, and eventually to escape, are slow and insufficient. He acts like someone who did something terrible, even though, on the overt level of things, it’s what he avoided doing that matters most. 

Alicia, meanwhile, is haunted by little or no guilt; she is angry and surprised when Bobby refuses her, and those simplest forms of sadness continue to reverberate through that otherwise infinitely complex brain as she goes to college, studies with Grothendieck, refuses to take her meds. She is a genius, and doesn’t understand why she and Bobby should be bound by mere moral convention. (The reader, needless to say, agrees with Bobby, but Alicia’s pain is rendered so vividly that we do not simply shrug it off.) Behind both of them is, perhaps, another ghost-guilt: they both make a point of saying, more than once, that their father’s complicity in the creation of the atomic bomb doesn’t bother them. If they hadn’t made a point of saying so, I might believe them.

This plot isn’t resolved. Neither is the downed-plane-spy-stuff plot. The novel is dotted with rich and interesting characters whom we see only intermittently. My favorite of these is probably Debussy Fields, a trans lady who is depicted with the same endearing sympathy and curiosity about the downcast that made McCarthy’s Suttree (1979) such a wonderful novel, despite the usual bits of overwriting. (We already knew McCarthy wasn’t a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, but it turns out he’s not a trans-exclusionary radical reactionary either.) Particles go on interacting; who knows where they stop? 

McCarthy has been compared to Faulkner a million times. I wouldn’t wish to insult him, but in these novels—roaming freely through time, privileging character over story (or letting the characters be stories), nesting the structure of the book with nuances and reverberations that beg for a second reading—well, he displays forms of excellence that put me in mind of Henry James, as well as a certain neurasthenic French novelist of the early twentieth century. And if McCarthy can’t quite survive that comparison, he submits himself to it in a way that evokes sympathy, and warmth, and a little awe. Those are also the feelings with which I read these books.

Stella Maris
Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, $26, 208 pp.

The Passenger
Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, $30, 400 pp.

Phil Christman is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and the author of Midwest Futures.

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Published in the March 2023 issue: View Contents
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