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Forever Watcher

The Passenger 

Cormac McCarthy 

Knopf, pp. 400, $30.00 

Stella Maris 

Cormac McCarthy 

Knopf, pp. 208, $26.00


A few years ago, I happened to be washing my hands next to Mitch McConnell at the end of a gala held in the National Building Museum. My phone buzzed. I picked it up and read the notification: Philip Roth, author of Portnoy’s Complaint, dead at 85. “Philip Roth is dead!” I exclaimed. McConnell didn’t even look up from the sink. He dried his hands and left the bathroom. But I couldn’t contain myself. I felt I had to tell someone who would acknowledge this monumental fact. “Philip Roth is dead!” I told my dining companions. They shrugged. So I called my father. The phone rang and rang. He must have been asleep. I texted him in all caps: PHILIP ROTH IS DEAD. When he read the message the next morning, he did not reply.

I can’t blame him. What was there to say, anyway? By the time Roth’s heart failed, few people were thinking about him. The generation of readers that lapped up Portnoy had died off, and, for the most part, younger literary aspirants found his autofictional sexual anxieties unsettling. He fell out of fashion the way most people do: he was old, and in the last decades of his life he couldn’t produce work of the highest quality. The same could be said of the other still-living greats of his generation, whom, along with Roth, Harold Bloom in 2003 named the only “living American novelists I know of who are still at work and who deserve our praise.” Thomas Pynchon is all but retired. Don DeLillo isn’t, but he isn’t really writing novels either. Cormac McCarthy alone has fought on, and in the past few years has been toiling away at a massive novel with which he’s been obsessed for more than half his life.

That novel is something of a legend among McCarthy’s fans. It is said that he began work on it in the 1980s, when he told his publisher that he was writing about a brother and sister living New Orleans. He kept quiet about it for the next twenty-five years. After the success of The Road, he mentioned during an interview that his next book would be largely about a young woman who committed suicide in the mid-1970s and her brother who is still coping with her death in the early 1980s. McCarthy admitted the work was frustrating: “I was planning on writing about a woman for fifty years,” he said. “I will never be competent enough to do so, but at some point you have to try.” He didn’t mention the book again until 2015, when he read some passages from a novel tentatively titled The Passenger at the Santa Fe Institute, where he is a fellow. A rumor spread that the new novel’s publication was imminent. A former professor of mine, who has been reading McCarthy since well before Oprah’s book club and the film version of No Country for Old Men made him a household name, said that he developed a daily habit of refreshing McCarthy’s author page on Knopf’s website. He did this for about three years before giving up and sighing, “He’s just been silent for too long.”

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