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Cover of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Passenger.'

This is one of those books that I know I’ll be reading multiple times and that leaving a conventional “review” for won’t be possible.

The Passenger is presented through two different, alternating vantage points. First is through the hallucinations of Alicia, a certified genius in math, violins and a great deal of theoretical things. The other is Bobby Western, the brother of Alicia and, while smart in his own right, could never quite live up to his little sister. That didn’t matter to him, though, because he loved his little sister. When I say loved, I don’t mean sibling-wise; I mean… yeah. There are vague allusions to a quasi wedding ceremony, malformed babies and the hurt his family suffered because of all of this.

If this was the path of inciting incidents that led to Alicia checking herself into therapy, where she received shock treatments and hallucinated the Thalidomide Kid, almost described like a penguin, who would interrogate Alicia, berate her, and bring about a cast of crude “entertainers” to keep her company.

Bobby sees the Thalidomide Kid once when he closed himself up in a shack by the beach.

If you want to, you could read deeper into a lot of this, including McCarthy’s use of language and his own reading into the Kekule Problem. McCarthy isn’t a normal guy. He’s one of the most acclaimed American authors and he can waltz into the Santa Fe Institute, a think tank where he’s spent a lot of his recent years pondering language, mathematics and philosophy. This book is well researched, delving into complex mathematic theories, other times the Kennedy Assassination or the history of the atomic bombs. Western’s dad was one of the creators of the atomic bomb, and his papers were stolen while Bobby was “away” after an accident.

It’s understanding these things that helps to unravel what this book is. There’s a plane crash at the beginning and Bobby is a salvage diver, working with a motley crew of rejects to take whatever job comes their way. One of those jobs is this crash, and there’s a missing body, black box and no sign of forced entry. After this, things just seem to keep getting more complicated and worse.

We learn Bobby found a small fortune in vintage coins stuffed into pipes in the concrete foundation of his grandparents’ old home. Alicia and he split that fortune, with Alicia buying a very expensive violin with her half, and Bobby buying a sports car and trotting around the globe doing various things, including being a pretty good race car driver. But what Bobby can’t shake is that Alicia killed herself. She was always the smarter one, but she was also the active one.

She had checked herself into the asylum, had always known what she wanted to do, what she wanted to be. She was sought after by violin collectors to give the history and math behind antique violins. Everything about Alicia was active while Bobby drifted around, unsure of himself or his life. There’s something here about Bobby’s parents and their link to the atomic bombs and the sin that comes with being the offspring of such an atrocity.

The feds are after Bobby. On the surface it’s about tax evasion, but there’s something deeper here at play. Is Bobby the missing body from the aircraft at the beginning? Did Bobby ever really wake up after his accident and his mind is playing through his own guilt in a much more straightforward way than Alicia did?

One key here is perhaps the Thalidomide Kid himself. Thalidomide was a drug used in the 50s and 60s for pregnant women to help with morning sickness, and the results were horrific. It led to limb and liver deformities in babies that were born, or it led to miscarriages. Their limbs would resemble flippers.

Bobby encounters a host of different characters from his diving buddies, most of which meet untimely ends, to bar friends and even the glamorous trans stripper, Debbie. Debbie feels like something more, especially considering when it comes down to it, she’s who Bobby trusts the most. The feds are doing everything in their power to strip Bobby’s identity away from him, to where he feels like he needs to take a new identity at the hands of a lawyer he found in the phone book and has had a series of metaphysical conversations with at a mobster restaurant, and Debbie is his choice of confidant before he leaves.

Can you live your life if the past is anchored to your ankles and dragging you down? Most of his diving friends are listless and afraid of letting go of something, and their ends are not poetic. Be it living in a run-down shack shooting roaches, drowning on a job or having a lifestyle catch up, each one gave Bobby insight into what his life could be, but he can’t quite accept any of them.

This is a dense, interesting, frustrating and at times very funny book that I know I’m gonna re-visit soon. It also means I need to read Stella Maris, then re-evaluate this one. I’m glad we got this book.

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