The Passenger Overly Engimatic


The Passenger (2022)

By Cormac McCarthy

Alfred A. Knopf, 383 pages.




The publisher calls The Passenger  “a novel of morality and science, the legacy of sin and the madness that is human consciousness.” That’s both accurate and a tip-off. I am not a Cormac McCarthy newbie. I know that his books are neither breezy nor feel-good reading. What McCarthy always gives us is spectacular and sparkling prose. We certainly get that in The Passenger.


What we don’t get is any sort of narrative. Bobby Western is the novel’s central character but you won’t initially know that. In one of the most unorthodox openings in recent literary history, The Passenger opens with a scene that could be a Fellini outtake, a surreal dialogue between a female of indeterminate age and a character called The Thalidomide Kid, who waves his flipper to conduct what appears to be an audition for a twisted carnival or vaudeville routine. This chapter is written in italics and, like the entire book, eschews quotation marks and apostrophes. The non-italicized chapters focus on Bobby, but you won’t learn until about halfway through that the other chapters are about his deceased schizophrenic sister Alicia.


When we meet Bobby in 1980, he’s a New Orleans-based salvage diver doing a job in Mississippi. His dive discovers an intact submerged private jet with the pilot and eight passengers strapped in their seats. What he doesn’t find is the flight recorder, the pilot’s bag, or any evidence of the ninth passenger who was supposed to be aboard. Don’t wait for the mystery to resolve. Bobby will be surveilled and harassed by men with badges, but we never learn who they are–FBI? CIA? mobsters?–and the crash itself isn’t even a MacGuffin. We never learn what happened to the plane or why Bobby is under suspicion. This makes the novel’s very title a misnomer.


We eventually learn that both Bobby and Alicia were child prodigies, she in math and he in physics. Their father worked on the Manhattan project under Robert Oppenheimer. (If you don’t know his tale, he lost his security clearance because his wife once belonged to the Community Party.) Alicia went to the University of Chicago at age 12, and Bobby dropped out of Cal Tech, drove Formula Two racecars in Europe, and drifted into diving. It is strongly suggested that he and his sister were lovers, but like everything else in the novel, the specifics are murky. All we know is that he splits after the IRS seizes his assets (including his Maserati). He is fine living as a bum-like recluse and spends a lot of time musing about guilt, grief, and spirituality.


It's hard, though, to get much handle on a guy whose most repeated comment is, “I don’t know.” He has long conversations with the garrulous John Sheddan and a lawyer named Kline, but these exchanges sound profound but go nowhere. This means many of them–including a long discourse on President Kennedy’s assassination posing as received truth–meander but fail to enlighten. It’s no wonder that one reader compared the novel to Kafka’s The Trial and another to an acid trip. The disconnected ping pong-style conversations put me in mind of the Barry Levinson movie Diner (1982) if he had set it in a graduate student lounge.


Insofar as I could determine, The Passenger is an exploration of those who simply don’t fit in society and have to decide whether to engage with the world, exit from it, or go solo. Bobby’s engagement attempts are, to say the least, unorthodox. Those with whom he connects the most include a transgender woman,  a conman, roughnecks, drunks, and misfits cut from different cloth than his own.


McCarthy’s prose  is the only salvage job that keeps this novel from being scrap. There are spectacular passages in The Passenger that made me wish he had saved them for a better book. His writing is so good that he has devotees who will praise everything he writes whether or not it makes an iota of sense. I’m a McCarthy fan, but not of this book. My best advice is to visit your local library, pluck this volume from the shelf, and plonk yourself down in a comfy chair. Open to a random page, read a few paragraphs, and repeat several times. Return it to the shelf.


Rob Weir



The Hotel Nantucket: A Summer Beach Read



By Erin Hilderbrand

Little, Brown, & Company, 401 pages.





Erin Hilderbrand is certainly a regional writer given that most of her 28 books have been set on the island of Nantucket. It’s appropriate that I post this review on the first day of summer, as The Hotel Nantucket is a beach-read novel. Hilderbrand is a mass market writer whose books are more genre-oriented than literary in style. If your preferences run to the latter, you might not be tempted but I can say that it’s more than candy floss. Hilderbrand entertains with heavy-on-relationships books and characters with depth. You won’t like everyone in this novel, but you will get to know them. Another  feature to note is that the book runs 401 pages, but 46 are in the form of a guidebook for those traveling to this tony summer playground. It even comes with a suggested music playlist.


The Hotel Nantucket  is about the tensions between the rich and those who cater to them. The novel’s namesake establishment is a faded grand old hotel about to get a serious makeover, courtesy of Xavier Darling, a rich Brit, who sinks $32 million into rehabbing it. His stated goal is to obtain a rare 5-key rating, though he also has an ulterior motive that is yours to discover. Call it a luxury venue on steroids­­­­—a decadent bar, free mini bars that are restocked every three days, artisan-woven blankets and linens, a sauna, a yoga studio, gourmet food, hydrangea blue décor, a requisite ghost, and the expectation that staff must keep the place spotless and kowtow to every customer whim. Darling wants the hotel to be so exclusive that anyone who doesn’t book way in advance can’t stay or eat  there, no matter how fat their wallet.


Making this work means hiring the “right” staff, but not necessarily a conventional one. Lizbet Keaton comes aboard as manager and is placed in charge of hiring after dissolving her partnership with her unfaithful boyfriend with whom she ran the island’s most-popular restaurant. Good luck keeping control over exotic gold-digger Alessander Powell, celebrity chef Mario Subacio, shady night auditor Richie Decameron, elderly housekeeper Magda English, or naïve clerk Edie Robbins who is drowning in student debt as well as being blackmailed by her former boyfriend. It’s a crew so fraught with baggage that one of its most stable members is “Long Shot” Chad Winslow, a rich Bucknell kid who takes a job as a maid as self-atonement for a foolish thing he did during a college party. His father, Paul, simply can’t comprehend why he’d debase himself as a maid. There are several out gay characters as well, but none whose motives are transparent.   


Darling bribes his staff by handing out weekly bonuses, though it has a boomerang effect of pitting them against each other. But Darling is a determined man, even though he never leaves London. The key to the fifth key, as it were, is to have everything shipshape in case blogger Shelly Carpenter of Hotel Confidential fame pays a visit. That too is a problem; her identity is a better-kept secret than U.S. nuclear codes. This means a staff on edge­—or perhaps “more” on edge since who is sleeping with whom enters the plot—because even a minor slip up like a piece of litter or a misunderstanding with a customer might take place with or in the presence of Carpenter. You can imagine that some of the guests have weird quirks and agendas. There is, to name one, Kimber Marsh who arrives with her chess prodigy son Louie,  inquisitive daughter Wanda, and their pit bull Doug. Marsh insists on stashing a huge amount of money in a hotel safe and withdraws thousands each week to pay their freight in cash. 


If this sounds like a potboiler, it is! It’s also a look at the entitled, clueless toffs who descend on places like Nantucket as if no one lives there when summer ends. It will give you an appreciation for those who exercise stoic self-restraint among those who think nothing of $100 tips for bellhops. The flip side is that they also think nothing of blaming them for their own errors or demanding dismissal for perceived slights.


This being a summer read, you can expect a (relatively) chirpy ending. You might even be tempted to pay Nantucket a visit. Maybe in offseason. At a reasonably priced hotel.


Rob Weir


Art Road Trip: What’s Good at the Hood?


Hood Art Museum

Hanover, New Hampshire

May 2023

[Click on photos for large view]




We made a return trip to the Hook Art Museum because it has an exhibit of Margaret Bourke-White photos. Bourke-White (1904-71) is an iconic name in photography and deservedly so. She was sometimes critiqued for posing her subjects–allegedly a no-no during the 1930s-40s among those who insisted that all documentary work should capture images exactly as the lens saw them. Courtesy of Susan Sontag and others, we now assume that the camera “lies” no matter whether an image is spontaneous or posed. After all, the moment shutterbugs point the camera left instead of right, they have “edited.” 



Bourke-White was a proto third-wave feminist in that she led an army of other women photographers who kicked out the jams of what was expected of female artists. She even had the first cover of Life Magazine, which is also the source of the Hood exhibit of shots she took during World War II. Alas, there are two problems with the exhibit. First, it’s quite small and we could have used a lot more images to showcase her considerable talents. A much bigger issue, though, is one that’s endemic in museums: inappropriate lighting. Displaying photographs, especially those in black and white, requires close attention to the type of illumination used and the placement of images. The Bourke-Whites were hung in a straight line along a corridor that’s dark at one end and flooded with light from a window at the other. The most enduring impression is that the bounce of harsh lights upon the glass rendered many of Bourke-White’s prints hard to appreciate. She was known for her eye for composition and that’s still evident. What’s not so easy to see is her command of tonal range. I was only able to snap three okay(ish) images and even they have a brown cast that’s not in the original. Oh well. You can always use Google Images to see what these shots don’t convey.




What’s good about the Hood is that it’s a true teaching museum, so there’s always something interesting to see. We concentrated on Latino and Indigenous political art, which took up most of the top floor. It pretty much details grievances and identity issues from the political awakening of the 1970s to the present with visits to the past. Many of you have probably seen well-traveled works such as Yolanda Lopez’s Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim? or Jesus Barraza’s Indian Land.



The 1970s were a period in which the United Farm Workers Union led by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez was at its height. In 1973, the UFW launched a strike against Gallo wines and a boycott of table grapes. The Hood displays a poster of the strike from an unknown artist and an Incan-meets-psychedelia boycott image from Xavier Viramontes. Raisins, of course, are sun-ripened grapes. They too came in for scrutiny as we see in Ester Hernandez’s advertising caricature Sun Raid







The 1980s saw a backlash against the farmworkers, but as Michael Menchaca’s work from 1985 shows, political consciousness remained high. It has remained so. Note Rupert Garcia’s Obama From Douglass that shows an unbroken link from Frederick Douglass to America’s first black president. A wall of posters of activists  from Joe Hill to the present shows the major strength of left movements: a long historical memory.  





Latinos have their own “Say their names” memory aids and have taken small steps toward LGBTQ concerns. Keith Monkman’s study for Lit Skin in a Limo is at once whimsical and defiant. 






I’m not sure how much longer any of this will be on display. You might not like some of the more contemporary pieces, but I can say with confidence that a trip to the Hood will make you think. If you’re lucky, some of the museum’s superb collection of Australian aboriginal art will be on display.


Rob Weir