February 1, 2023

We’re All Passengers on Cormac McCarthy’s Double-Decker

By Stuart Mitchner

I was planning on writing about a woman for 50 years. I will never be competent enough to do so, but at some point you have to try.

—Cormac McCarthy, 2009

he’s in love with his sister and she’s dead.

—from The Passenger/Stella Maris

Cormac McCarthy’s two-volume novel The Passenger/Stella Maris (Knopf 2022) begins with the woman he had planned to write about for half a century.

It had snowed lightly in the night and her frozen hair was gold and crystalline and her eyes were frozen cold and hard as stones. One of her yellow boots had fallen off and stood in the snow beneath her. The shape of her coat lay dusted in the snow where she’d dropped it and she wore only a white dress and she hung among the bare gray poles of the winter trees with her head bowed and her hands turned slightly outward like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered….”

The one-page prologue is printed in italics, as are all the first nine of 10 numbered, self-contained chapters of The Passenger devoted to Alicia Western and the theater of her psychosis. Her older brother Bobby’s adventures and misadventures a decade later are recounted in the interspersed unnumbered chapters (including the 10th and last), all printed in standard type, albeit with the author’s characteristic disregard of conventional punctuation.

“Hold My Hand”

Stella Maris, the shorter second volume of this two-part novel, is titled after the name of the psychiatric hospital in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, where Alicia, who was born on December 26, 1951, spends the last months of her life and from where she will “wander away into the bleak Wisconsin woods” early on Christmas Day 1972. The book consists of almost 200 pages of conversation between Alicia and Dr. Robert Cohen, a psychologist attempting to conduct therapy sessions with a beautiful, suicidal, anorexic, schizophrenic 20-year-old mathematical prodigy who teases, provokes, charms, mystifies, challenges, dazzles, and confounds him. During the last of seven sessions, she says of her brother, the love of her life who she mistakenly thinks is dead, “There were times I’d see him looking at me and I would leave the room crying. I knew that I’d never be loved like that again.” Her willingness to tell the psychologist details of a passion she’d revealed to no one else but her brother leads to the request that brings the two-part 582-page novel to a close. After listening to her describe a suicidal dream of death in the woods, he says,

I think our time is up.
I know. Hold my hand.
Hold your hand?
Yes. I want you to.
All right. Why?
Because that’s what people do when they’re waiting for the end of something.

“Perverted Commas”

Tomorrow, February 2, is the 141st birthday of James Joyce, who, like McCarthy, avoided the standard use of quotation marks in dialogue; for Joyce a simple dash was preferable to what he once called “perverted commas.” McCarthy not only scorns the “weird little marks,” he has no use for the dash. I reprinted the book’s last exchange as it appears on the page. It’s best seen that way, no clutter, nothing between you and the words and the moment.

It’s also worth noting that the hallucinatory vaudeville of the Alicia chapters of The Passenger has points in common with the Nighttown fantasia in Ulysses. The master of ceremonies conducting the weird troupe that Alicia calls penny dreadfuls and cohorts is the Thalidomide Kid, aka the Kid, a provocative, profane, compulsively punning dwarf with flippers for hands and a “small scarred head,” who looks “like he’d been brought into the world with icetongs.” As for puns, Joyce would love him. Right away he’s at it with “unkempt premises” (her dumpy room in a Chicago rooming house), a play on unkept promises; “you know what’s in the offing” (her suicide); “the malady lingers on,” which she tells the creature in her head “won’t linger much longer,” another nod to her determination to end her life, and an indication that the wordplay originates in her own mind, the scenes with the Kid like satirical previews of Alicia’s sessions with Dr. Cohen.

One way McCarthy brings Alicia and her labyrinthine psyche to life is through the Kid’s rude name-calling (“Jesus, you’re a piece of work”) and her ability to ride out the playful abuse and give her own back. She’s variously Mathgirl, Presh, Birdtits, Luscious, Your Weirdness, Tuliptits, Doris, Jessica, even Alice. When she asks him why he never calls her by her right name, he says, “I liked it better when you were Alice. I thought you were a more down-to-earth girl. With Alice we just had the malice. With Alicia we got to call out the Militia.” Mathgirl is also Wordgirl, deep down in her mind. When she asks him what he gets out of calling her names, he says “Names are important. They set the parameters for the rules of engagement.” These playful turns all revert to her. This is who she is. She’s also Cormac McCarthy, much as Leopold and Molly Bloom are James Joyce.

McCarthy’s Nighttown

In Alicia’s second chapter she flashes back to her first close encounter. She was 12 in a little room under the eaves of her grandmother’s house when she woke early one morning to find the chimeras assembled at the foot of her bed: “A matched pair of dwarves in little suits with purple cravats and homburg hats. An ageing lady in pancake makeup smeared with rouge. Antique dress of black voile, graying lace at throat and cuffs. About her neck she wore a stole assembled out of dead stoats flat as roadkill with black glass eyes and brocade noses. She raised a jeweled lorgnette  to her eye and peered at the girl from behind her ratty veil.” Like an illustration in a child’s storybook, Alicia “clutched the covers up under her chin. Who are you? she said.”

McCarthy uses the Kid to “read” her in ways that develop the metaphor of the passenger. When she asks where he and the cohorts come from and how did they get there, he says they came on the bus; she asks how is that possible, what would the other passengers think, you didn’t get any funny looks? What kind of passenger can see you?  Who do they think you are? What do they say? The Kid says “I guess they think I’m a passenger. Of course you could make the case that if they’re passengers then I must be something else …You’re supposed to be this girl genius so maybe you’ll figure it out.” When he goes on to say, “To the seasoned traveler a destination is at best a rumor,” she catches him up, “I wrote that. It’s in my diary.” And he says, “Good for you. When you carry a child in your arms it will turn its head to see where it’s going. Not sure why. It’s going there anyway.” Whoever’s carrying who and where and why, it seems a babe in arms is the primal passenger. As for how she got there, he throws out another pun: “she just rode in on her lunarcycle.”

Bobby’s Story

Between these first two Alicia chapters, the novel described in last fall’s media reviews begins. Few of The Passenger’s notices, even the favorable ones, give a fair indication of the book’s comic energies, of the wordplay inspired by Alicia’s psychedelic vaudeville and the earthy rants of Long John Sheedon, the Falstaffian scoundrel who calls Bobby “Squire Western” and is his favorite dining and drinking companion in the novel’s numerous New Orleans episodes.

To do justice to Bobby’s side of the story, I will need to write a separate piece next week. Bobby and his cat Billy Ray deserve a full paragraph. Same for Debussy “Debbie” Fields, the glamorous trans woman who knew both Bobby and Alicia back in Knoxville when she was William; she’s the only person Bobby trusts to read Alicia’s last letter to him, which he’s never had the emotional stamina to open, even though it may contain information about hidden wealth like the whereabouts of his sister’s rare Amati violin, which is worth $230,000, money he’s in serious need of, having been made destitute by IRS raids on his bank account and their impounding of his possessions, apparently scaring away of his cat, which he never sees again.

And speaking of the cat, I need space to consider the chapter in which the Kid drops in on Bobby eight years after Alicia’s death. We’ve assumed that the pun master lives only in her haunted subconscious, so what’s he doing in Bobby’s shabby beach-bum digs almost a decade later asking “How come you never got another cat?” When Bobby says, “I just didn’t want to lose anything else. I’m all lost out,” it goes straight to the heart of his story as surely as the opening image of the body in the woods or the final moment when Alicia says, “Hold my hand.” Bobby’s attachment to the cat has been the closest he’s come to the old dream of intimacy in all the years of missing her, going to bed with “the cat humming against his ribs” and walking “purring up and back along the edge of the bed” as he reads her letters, which “he knew by heart yet he read with care,” except for the last one. Of course the Kid has to ask about the cat, because she would.

And I haven’t come back to Alicia’s body in the woods “her hands turned slightly outward … that their history be considered” and that “the deep foundation of the world be considered where it has its being in the sorrow of her creatures. She had tied her dress with a red sash so that she’d be found. Some bit of color in the scrupulous desolation.” And, more important, I haven’t mentioned what happens following her last visit from the Kid. After he left, “she dreamt that she was running after a train with her brother … and in the morning she put that in her letter. We were running after the train Bobby and it was drawing away from us into the night and the lights were dimming away in the darkness and we were stumbling along the track and I wanted to stop but you took my hand and in the dream we knew that we had to keep the train in sight or we would lose it …. We were holding hands we were running and then I woke up and it was day.”

Next Week

Next week I’ll have a window seat on McCarthy’s double-decker, with stops in Knoxville, Los Alamos, a long layover in New Orleans, and a rough ride out west before touching down at a windmill on the coast of Spain, where The Passenger ends as Bobby Western lays back in the dark knowing “that on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty into the darkness with him ….”