February 8, 2023

Cormac McCarthy Returns

By Stuart Mitchner

In a November 2022 essay posted on nautil.us, Santa Fe Institute President David Krakauer refers to SFI member Cormac McCarthy’s “subterranean connections” to James Agee, author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), “a book that we keep in our library and that Cormac retrieves from time to time to remind us of the intimate connections between language and image, indigence and character, and the multifarious beauty found far from so-called civilized spotlights.” 

I found the phrase “subterranean connections” interesting in relation to the richness of McCarthy’s prose, most recently the striking one-page prologue to The Passenger/Stella Maris (Knopf 2022), now available as a two-volume set. It was while rereading the bravura passage describing Alicia Western’s body hanging among the winter trees that I first noticed intimations of Agee’s prose presence, particularly in lines such as “her hands turned slightly outward like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered.”

The “multifarious beauty” of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is reflected in a sharecropper’s mirror in one of the homes Agee and the photographer Walker Evan visited in 1936: “The mirror is so far corrupted that it is rashed with gray, iridescent in parts, and in all its reflections a deeply sad thin zinc-to-platinum, giving to its framings an almost incalculably ancient, sweet, frail, and piteous beauty, such as may be seen in tintypes of family groups among studio furnishings or heard in nearly exhausted jazz records made by very young, insane, devout men who were soon to destroy themselves, in New Orleans, in the early nineteen twenties.”

McCarthy’s prologue to The Passenger ends as the hunter who discovers the body “looked up into those cold enameled eyes glinting blue in the weak winter light. She had tied her dress with a red sash so that she’d be found. Some bit of color in the scrupulous desolation.”

In New Orleans

Agee’s reference to New Orleans provides an underground connection of sorts to the setting of The Passenger, where a word-drunk rogue named John Sheddan is holding amusingly forth at the Napoleon House on “a slight contretemps with the authorities regarding the legitimacy of some medical prescriptions.” His old Knoxville friend Bobby Western, a salvage diving math genius manqué, is his primary audience. When a woman who finds Bobby wildly attractive asks him how he happened to get into the salvage diving business, Sheddan tells her: “Don’t go there, my dear. You don’t want to know. How he secretly hopes to die in the deep to atone for his sins …. You may have noticed a certain reticence in our man. It’s true he does dangerous underwater work for high pay but it’s also true that he’s afraid of the depths …. He is sinking into a darkness he cannot even comprehend. Darkness and immobilizing cold. I enjoy talking about him if he does not …. He’s an attractive man. Women want to save him. But of course he’s beyond all that. What say, Squire? How far off the mark?”

“Rave on,” says Western, his preferred response to Big John’s perorations. After Bobby ignores the woman’s come hither looks and abruptly takes his leave, Sheddan riffs on his friend’s personal history: his hometown not Knoxville, alas, but Wartburg Tennessee, near Oak Ridge, his father’s trade at Los Alamos “the design and fabrication of enormous bombs for the purpose of incinerating whole cities full of innocent people as they slept in their beds.” At university in Knoxville, Western was a math major with a four-point average, played mandolin with a bluegrass band, got a scholarship to Cal Tech, dropped out, inherited a lot of money, and drove race cars in Italy where he had an accident that left him in a near-death coma for weeks; meanwhile Sheddan enlivens his narrative with the story of Alicia, the teenage sister Western would take to the clubs he played: “They were openly dating. And she was smarter than he was. And just drop dead gorgeous. A flatout train wrecker.” The punchline: “He’s in love with his sister and she’s dead.” Sheddan neglects to add that Alicia killed herself because she thought Bobby was never coming out of the coma and she couldn’t bring herself to approve the pulling of life support. 

Alicia as Medea 

Among the strongest chapters in The Passenger is the account of Western’s visit to his grandmother’s house in Wartburg. One morning at dawn he walks down to the old quarry, the walls of which formed an amphitheater opposite a reflecting pool where on a summer evening years ago “he had watched his sister perform the role of Medea alone on the quarry floor. She was dressed in a gown she’d made from sheeting and she wore a crown of woodbine in her hair. The footlights were fruitcans packed with rags and filled with kerosene. The reflectors were foil and the black smoke rose into the summer leaves above her and set them trembling while she strode the swept stone floor in her sandals. She was thirteen. He was in his second year of graduate school at Caltech and watching her that summer evening he knew he was lost. His heart in his throat. His life no longer his.”

When she finished “he stood and clapped. The flat dead echo halting off the quarry walls. She curtseyed twice and then she was gone, striding off into the dark, the shadows of the trees bowing to her in the light from her lantern where it swung by the bail.”

Back in summer 1980, he “sat on the cold stones with his face in his hands. I’m sorry, Baby. I’m sorry. It’s all just darkness. I’m sorry.”

In a later conversation Long John tells him, “When you’re ninety you’ll be weeping for love of a child.” This follows a typical Sheddan run: “Little I’d like better than to have a look into those intrafamilial sordidities concerning which you remain so circumspect. Hard money says it would make the Greeks look like Ozzie and Harriet.” When he exclaims “Mary’s celestial knickers!” in the same scene, Sheddan sounds very like another of McCarthy’s most useful verbal agents, the Thalidomide Kid, a chiding but companionable apparition Alicia sees whenever she’s off her meds. The Kid enters in the first chapter of The Passenger, appearing to Alicia in a Chicago rooming house in the last winter of her life.

A Hohenzollern Princess

Since the first half of this two-part review was dominated by Alicia and the hallucinatory floor show emceed by the Kid, the plan this week was to focus on Bobby Western. The problem is that the sister continues to intrigue me more than her brother. Despite the fact that she’s been dead since 1972, the wonder of Alicia is that she’s still viscerally, emotionally, and intellectually alive in alternate chapters of The Passenger and particularly in Stella Maris, titled after the psychiatric hospital where she spends the last months of her life; the book contains her conversations with Dr. Cohen, a psychologist. When he asks her why she changed her name, which “was originally Alice,” she dismisses it as her father’s idea of a joke, “Bob and Alice” being fictional characters used as placeholders in discussions of cryptographic systems. So determined was she to change her name to Alicia that she had her brother’s forger friend John Sheddan fabricate a fake birth certificate for her. Asked why, she says, “I was Alice Western from Wartburg, Tennessee and I wanted to be a Hohenzollern princess.”

Earlier in the same session, she reveals a glimpse of the life she dreamed of with her brother. After being asked what she wanted to be if not a mathematician, she says, “What I really wanted was a child. What I really want. If I had a child I would just go in at night and sit there. Quietly. I would listen to my child breathing. If I had a child I wouldn’t care about reality.”

Asked if she said anything to her brother when he was in a coma, “I told him I would rather be dead with him than alive without him.” Says the doctor: “I’ll take that as a forewarning.” Says Alicia: “Your life is set upon you like a dog.”

When in the course of asking the standard questions about her parents, Dr. Cohen touches on the subject of their “war work” at Los Alamos, Alicia says, “I think they were pretty proud of it. But if you think any of this in turn might have something to do with Edwardian dwarves dancing the Charleston in my bedroom at two o’clock in the morning I’d be happy to hear your exposition.”

The publisher calls Stella Maris a coda to The Passenger. The more I read it, and I’ve read it twice, I’d call it a personal triumph for the writer who said, “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.”

Dreaming of Alicia

In her brother’s dreams of her “she wore at times a smile he tried to remember and she would say to him almost in a chant words he could scarcely follow. He knew that her lovely face would soon exist nowhere save in his memories and in his dreams and soon after that nowhere at all…. Don’t be afraid for me, she had written. When has death ever harmed anyone?”

Knoxville 1962

Composed in 1938, James Agee’s peerless prose poem, “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” was set to music by Samuel Barber in 1947 and served ten years later as prologue to his posthumous novel A Death in the Family, which is where Cormac McCarthy would have read it and reread it. At some point during his years at the Santa Fe Institute, he may have told colleagues of the time he salvaged bricks from the ruins of Agee’s family home in Knoxville after it was demolished in September 1962. The bricks were used to build fireplaces for the farmhouse McCarthy was living in at the time. He was 29, four years away from the publication of his first novel, The Orchard Keeper.

Shooting Palmetto Bugs

Once again, I’m running out of space. Reviewers always beat the Faulkner/Hemingway drum when writing of Cormac McCarthy, who in this extraordinary work actually channels and encompasses so much more, from Joyce’s Nighttown to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (a whole series about a dead beauty with sequences of dancing dwarves) and the Los Alamos-haunted Twin Peaks: The Return, not to mention the presence of wordslingers on all sides worthy of the ones in David Milch’s Deadwood or Knoxville native Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. And I haven’t mentioned a shooting-Palmetto-bugs drinking scene as funny as anything in The Big Lebowski (McCarthy obviously got to know the Coen brothers when they made his No Country for Old Men). And there’s something of Joyce’s Buck Mulligan in McCarthy’s John Sheddan.