Devoted Cormac McCarthy fans who have been waiting 16 years for new works by the famous American writer are in for a surprise.
The reclusive author’s two interconnected new novels — which will be released on October 25 and December 6, respectively — are hard to categorize.
The first bookThe passenger, opens with a mysterious plane crash at sea that is sought by a neurotic rescue diver obsessed with his sister. The whole second book, Stella Marisconsists of scholarly conversations between this sister, who happens to be a genius in mathematics, and a therapist at the psychiatric hospital where she is interned.
By all accounts, McCarthy has been at it for at least four decades.
“Eight years ago it was such a swashbuckling swag that we were working on these books because McCarthy fans are rabid and any whiff of new books is going to be huge news,” says Jenny Jackson, editor at Knopf. , who began working with him in secret in 2014. “We would walk down the hall and deliver the manuscripts in person. And I wouldn’t tell anyone what we were working on.”
For the interview, Jackson goes to the Napoleon House, a venerable watering hole in the French Quarter of New Orleans – where McCarthy lived as a puny young writer. The protagonist in The Passenger is a troubled commercial diver named Bobby Western who frequents the Napoleon household for rambling speeches with eccentric cronies.
“In the beginning,” Jackson says, “there’s this huge number of loud characters and they all work as dishwashers and have drinks together and go out to restaurants. And then at the end, they’re each on a bit of a singular journey.”
Neither of these two new books contains the savagery and bloodshed that McCarthy readers have come to expect. There’s less action overall and more dialogue. Readers may wonder if McCarthy has mellowed now that he is 89.
The breathless text on the back cover of The passenger bed: “A sunken jet. Nine passengers. A missing body… A salvage diver prosecuted for a conspiracy beyond his comprehension.” But it’s not a fast-paced crime thriller like There is no country for old peoplewhich became an Oscar-winning screenplay for the Coen brothers.
The passenger starts out as a who-dun-it but then veers into Bobby’s metaphysical musings.
“When you’re Cormac McCarthy and you wrote The roadwhat the hell can you do next but attack God and human conscience? Jackson asks.
The Road is McCarthy’s latest best-selling novel, released in 2006, about a father and son’s harrowing journey among latter-day cannibals in a post-apocalyptic landscape. He won a Pulitzer.
McCarthy describes the genesis of The road in his only broadcast interview, given to Oprah Winfrey in 2007. He says he was in El Paso with his young son.
“I just had this image of these fires on the hill and all that was devastated and I thought a lot about my little boy. And so I wrote these pages and that was the end. And then about four years later I was in Ireland and woke up one morning and realized it wasn’t two pages, it was a book.”
The new paired books are more dense than dark. Notably, they reflect McCarthy’s love and deep understanding of theoretical physics and mathematics. He said, in his few interviews, that he sought the company of scientists at the Santa Fe Institute near his home in New Mexico.
Determined McCarthy fanatics found advanced copies of the books, and they provoked strong reactions. Some McCarthy aficionados were interviewed in September at a Cormac McCarthy conference in Savannah, Georgia.
“The novels explore all of these aspects of human mental behavior. I think they’re just wonderful,” says Diane Luce, former president of the Cormac McCarthy Society.
And Bryan Giemza, professor of literature at Texas Tech University, says, “In some ways, they’re flawed. They’re likely to be inscrutable to a lot of people. Let’s just say, these aren’t my favorite novels.”
A third early read, Lydia Cooper, an English professor at Creighton University, says, “These are brain teasers, but they’re also very compelling. The characters are really rich and fascinating. I think people will either love them or hate them. “
One of the Georgia conference organizers was Stacey Peebles, an English professor who teaches a McCarthy course at Center College and is editor of the Cormac McCarthy Journal.
“I’ve had students come to my office. They said, ‘Are you going to teach the new ones? I’m so excited.’ “
Peebles also read the two new books.
“We’ve been waiting for them for a long time,” she says. “There’s always the chance that you’ll read something new and be disappointed. But I’ve read them once. I’ve read them again. And I’ll probably keep reading them. I mean, all of McCarthy’s works have phrases. it’ll just stop you dead in your tracks, but these have a lot.”
Here is one of those sentences, from The passenger (you can read a longer, NPR-exclusive excerpt from Stella Maris here):
“God’s own mudlark masked and muttered the barren edge of nameless desolation where the cold sidereal sea crashes and boils and storms howl from this black, restless alcahest.”
McCarthy – who still typesets on a manual typewriter – is considered one of the greatest and most influential writers in the English language.
“I started noticing pretty early that a lot of these students were writing like Cormac McCarthy,” says Texas novelist and historian Stephen Harrigan, who taught a course in fiction writing at the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers. in Austin. He remembers with a chuckle: “They wrote with strange phrases like: ‘He went up alone in the dark plain.’ That kind of language, and that archaic use of the Old Testament creates a kind of charm, especially for young writers.
The McCarthy spell is about to be cast again, and not just for readers but for seekers.
Cormac McCarthy’s literary articles are archived in a locked cabinet at the Witliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos.
“That’s a hundred boxes of Cormac stuff we have here,” says Steve Davis, literary curator at the Witliff, as he opens the cabinet. “His collection begins with his first book, Outside Dark“, and it ends with the first drafts of The Passenger.
The latest box has been restricted for 15 years, since the Witliff acquired McCarthy’s coveted papers, and McCarthy scholars are already lining up to dive into it. The final box will be opened the same day The passenger goes on sale – but Davis offered a taste.
“It’s the box of the new novel, The Passengerhe says, “and we’re going to put out this first big file that says, ‘The Passenger, old first draft.’ Typed and photocopied pages, strongly corrected in pencil.'”
Perhaps the contents of this box will reveal how Cormac McCarthy’s challenging new novels evolved and why he wrote them.