For all its pulpy accoutrements — a passenger has vanished from a crashed plane, and mysterious government agents are hunting down salvage diver Bobby Western — “The Passenger” is as much a thriller as “The Road” is a horror novel. Which is to say, yes — on a foundational level you can see glimpses of genre archetypes, and perhaps in anyone else’s hands, its evolution would be rote. But Cormac McCarthy’s first novel in 16 years is everything you want it to be: beguiling, intellectually alive, stylistically stunning.
Its unfolding is dizzyingly labyrinthine. McCarthy touches on so many subjects, sometimes fleetingly, often in long, dialogue-heavy scenes, and he leaves it up to the reader to decide their significance. Characters go deep on the JFK assassination, quantum mechanics, and the atomic bomb, all in service of its major themes: grief, sorrow, and loss.
I’m tempted to classify “The Passenger” as an enigma, because it asks questions and doesn’t answer them, and answers questions readers didn’t ask. The narrative through-line isn’t always entirely clear. But the thing is, it’s so completely and utterly unputdownable. The writing is exquisite. The dialogue sings. There is not one instant when it doesn’t feel like McCarthy is in full control; like whatever I did, and did not understand, was wholly intentional.