You never did the Thalidomide Kid | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

The Thalidomide Kid found her in a roominghouse on Clark Street. Near North Side. He knocked on the door. Unusual for him. Of course she knew who it was. She’d been expecting him. And anyway it wasn’t really a knock. Just a sort of slapping sound.

–The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Maybe you did fool the Philadelphia, rag the Rochester, josh the Joliet. But you never did the Kenosha kid.

–Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon.

Surely you must know who it is who cuts the ludicrous figure here.

Do I? Who you gonna ask? And don’t call me Shirley.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Either They have put him here for a reason, or he’s just here.

–Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon.

What do they want? What does who want?

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy [italics mine]

The wankers had a word for it.

We saw it in a book Crosseyed Ruby showed us. Phocomelia. Ruby said that’s Greek and means seal limb. Fukkin seal limb!

Skin, Peter Milligan, Brendan McCarthy, and Carol Swain


I’m a bit over halfway through Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger and enjoying it very much. I haven’t read any reviews, but I’ve seen some tweets and some other internet buzz that seems to indicate that Reviews Are Mixed. I went into the novel with minimal expectations, as I admitted in my first little riff on it. 

But so far The Passenger has done what I hoped it might do: show McCarthy venturing into new territory, but territory still anchored in his roots. It also is, at least up through its first 200 pages, McCarthy’s most accessible novel.

As I write the words “McCarthy’s most accessible novel,” I realize that it’s entirely possible that previous McCarthy novels have taught me to read The Passenger—but I don’t think that’s so. The Passenger offers a somewhat-straightforward frame of alternating strands. Numbered chapters (composed in italics) hover in the mind of the schizophrenic genius Alicia Western, whose suicide (no spoiler) initiates the novel. These short chapters then give way to the main narrative thrust of The Passenger in unnumbered chapters that focus on Alicia’s brother Bobby Western, a near-genius with an eidetic memory and a hole in his soul.

Bobby Western is a salvage diver based out of New Orleans. In his initial chapter, he searches the wreck of a small plane in the Gulf of Mexico, and quickly realizes that–gasp!–a passenger from the manifest is missing (along with a control panel) from the wreck. Bobby’s subsequent investigations into the whereabouts of the missing passenger lead to his being tailed and surveilled by a nebulous They. Paranoia!

The prose mechanics of the Bobby chapters are reminiscent of No Country for Old Men (lots of men-doing-stuff in detail), as well as the genre fictions of George V. Higgins, Chester Himes, or James Ellroy. The Bobby chapters also lend a bagginess to the novel. They often sprawl out into long conversations with his friends that amount to pleasant asides from the plot proper—a Vietnam vet, a transwoman, a college buddy turned petty thief. We also start to cobble together the Western family history. Alicia and Bobby’s father was a physicist who worked with Oppenheimer to develop the atomic bomb.

With the specter of a They and the haunted past of the Bomb, The Passenger drifts into Pynchon territory. The Alicia chapters go a step beyond superficial connections, unexpectedly approaching Pynchonian prose, particularly in the figure of Alicia’s interlocutor, the Thalidomide Kid (usually simply called The Kid, an echo perhaps of Blood Meridian).

(Parenthetically–The Thalidomide Kid, who shows up almost immediately in The Passenger, is only the second so-called “thalidomide baby” that I’ve seen appear in a work of fiction. The first was Martin Atchet in the graphic novel Skin, written by Peter Milligan, with art by Brendan McCarthy, and colors by Carol Swain. Track it down if you dare.)

The Thalidomide Kid presides over the “horts,” the cohort of intelligences and personalities that vie for space in Alicia’s troubled mind. The Kid is part carny, part philosopher, slipping on malapropisms and dealing in corny jokes and bad puns. He could have walked right out of a Pynchon novel. He dons costumes, performs parlor tricks, and runs vaudeville routines. In one bit, wearing “frockcoat and frightwig,” he mocks modern psychiatry, playing false Freud to Alicia’s patient (she’s recently returned from analysis, soon on her way to electroshock therapy). Elsewhere, they discuss the philosophy of math. Or maybe the math of philosophy–these bits might be beyond my ken (and beyond McCarthy’s ken). The Thalidomide Kid episodes are simultaneously hallucinatory and lucid, zany and sinister, comic and tragic. The mode, again, strikes me as more Pynchonian than what we might think of as classic McCarthy (Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy).

I’ve overemphasized (and foregrounded, both in the title of this post and the quotes I’ve pulled) a connection between The Passenger and Pynchon’s fiction, but to be clear, there is no sense that McCarthy is aping Pynchon. Indeed, I’d be surprised if McCarthy has ever read Pynchon. What I see in common between the fiction of these two old masters (just five years apart in age) is a kind of filtering of the twentieth century, a distillation of not just themes, but also style. Pynchon has always made his ventriloquist act clear to his audience, (even as he ironizes it). In The Passenger, McCarthy finally seems a bit looser, more relaxed, more willing to let the genres and voices bend and refract. It might not be as cutting and heavy as Blood Meridian or Suttree, but it’s every bit as vibrant and inventive. More thoughts to come.

2 thoughts on “You never did the Thalidomide Kid | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger”

  1. Really enjoying your running commentary here… Want More. Feels like how I’d feel about the book, italics sounds annoying, and “the Thalidomide Kid” is bonkers. Always curious to see the connections a reader makes, too, within a writer’s body of work, and beyond. Anyway, eager to read the book now.

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