Such a strange book. I think I only understood what might have been happening after talking to my wife this morning.
The book begins as a dark noir mystery, draped in southern moss and twisted as a mandrake, but it never solves its own mystery. But I believe that's because life and death are a mystery that there is no pat just-so ending for, and McCarthy's ambitions, with this book were higher - or maybe he just tapped into something deeper - a dream like unconscious space where this is what came out. Or maybe he's just lazy and doesn't give a fuck anymore, because he's Cormac McCarthy, and he doesn't have to.
The most compelling and memorable thing about the book are the characters, Bobby Western and his sister Alicia Western. Both are the children of a brilliant Jewish physicist who working on the Atomic Bomb. The second most compelling thing is the language and the ideas and the simple evoking of a sense of place - New Orleans before Katrina, before cell phones, before the Muggers, before "NOLA" - early 80's. The charm of walking Decatur Street without tourists and stoners. Being able to go to Du Monde and just get a cup of coffee.
The elevation of language and the conversation that happen - it's almost as if someone said, hey Cormac, you never write dialogue - so he created a book of complete dialogue.
After reading this book, I find myself actually speaking better.
As to the action, it begins with Bobby Western and his partner diving into the swampy Bayou around New Orleans to inspect a downed small jet. There are about 12 people on board and one passenger is missing. Bobby gets the sense that something is missing and no good will come of this dive. He is soon visited by two curious Fed types who want to know if he took anything from the plane. The expectation of the book is that we're going to follow up and find out more about the plane crash.
The name of the books is The Passenger after all - who is The Passenger? This is never settled in any manner other than super obliquely.
Bobby revisits the site once, and then, after that, the story drifts into a dream-logic mashup of remembrance and the un-answerable questions that old men can't ever stop asking when they wake up at night.
Bobby had a sister and she was brilliant and beautiful. Beautiful enough to make a man reconsider all of his decisions in life; smart enough to get into the University of Chicago at 13.
Bobby and Alicia were in love. Bobby was brilliant; Alicia Western transcendently so; so much so that it was nearly impossible for her to have a conversation with anyone on earth. Bobby & Alicia were in love with each other - it's like, no one else could be at their level. It was an incestuous love that was apparently never consummated. We meet Alicia through Bobby's pining, the memories of others and through her conversations she has with "The Kid" and accompanying apparitions that visit her when she goes off her meds. The Kid is some sort of creepy smart ass humanoid creature with flippers for hands. He's accompanied by other creatures - a sort of little vaudeville of horrors.
Bobby eats and drinks and converses his way from one really swell New Orleans restaurant to another, speaking with a series of ne'er do well characters who all seem appropriately world-weary and well-read, with criminal records and a shared history. Long John being the prime example.
Bobby is constantly pursed by two guys who seem like Feds that come to check in on him - they eventually seize his car and freeze his bank account. The sense is that they're looking for something, but it's not clear to us - or even Bobby - what they're looking for. He goes to see a lawyer who recommends he switch identities and leave. He drags his feet as he goes home to see his grandmother. He goes to the asylum where his sister checked herself in and speaks to some of the patients that knew her. He goes to ground, lives in a shed on the Bayou and then turns north and drives north to spend a survivalist winter in Idaho in an old farmhouse owned by a family friend. The travels and the sleepless nights are all described with proper McCarthian oomph, like no one else can write - muscular, dark, foreboding and melancholic without sentiment.
The end effect is of: a dream and that pit in your stomach. This book leaves is like a nightmare when you can't shake the feeling all the next day. Grieving. Loss.
I guess the operative question at the end is, who is the Passenger? And what really happens? Is it some sort of 6th sense thing - did he actually die in the plane and his soul is wandering through these uncomfortable realms, searching for the peace of at least official bardo?