The Power to Burn: Cormac McCarthy’s Exploration of America’s Nuclear Legacy in The Passenger & Stella Maris

by Dylan Clymer

I first encountered Cormac McCarthy around 2006 at my local bookstore, but it wasn’t until I came across The Passenger and Stella Maris a decade and a half later that I decided to give his work a chance. Truth be told, I decided to finally take the plunge because I knew how old McCarthy was, and I wanted to see what kind of work one might produce in the twilight of life.

In the months that followed, I read Blood Meridian and The Road. What had drawn me to his work was his perception and vivid illustrations of violence as a force that shapes history, whether enforced by the state or by fellow men.I first realized this after reading Blood Meridian. What stood out most to me was the way McCarthy painted the American landscape as an indifferent and vast environment riddled by lust, greed, conquest, and decay. If one thing can be said about Blood Meridian, it is that the pungent scent of rot permeates the whole text.

Within The Passenger and Stella Maris, I found something similar in each text. What sets McCarthy’s final books apart is that the violence he portrays is more of a clinical and banal nature, but with more intensity and consequence. Instead of cannibalism, rape, and murder, we witness the wanton indifference of the Western patriarch throughout the Manhattan Project and the further development and testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific, along with the resulting cancerous bodies and decimated landscapes left in the wake of America’s nuclear weapons projects.

From a macroscopic view, America’s rise to being a nuclear power demanded exponential militarization in the Pacific, specifically in the Micronesian region, as World War II and the Cold War continued to make an indelible mark upon the international geopolitical stage. But the country’s rise to being a nuclear power is not without enduring consequence. While growing up on Guam (effectively a US territory), around the hyper-militarization throughout the Micronesian region, it became increasingly clear to me that the US had always intended to make my home a locus of American military might at the cost of indigenous people. I’ve come to realize that beyond the military industrial complex, we are also living in America’s nuclear shadow.

McCarthy explores the far-reaching consequences of America’s nuclear weapons development in The Passenger and Stella Maris. In these explorations, what stands out most is how both the main characters’ parents died from cancers that can be most likely attributed to their work on the Manhattan Project. Like for these protagonists, Bobby and Alicia Western, cancer is a disease which haunts my history, and I’ve had family and friends survive it and others who did not. The correlation between cancer and militarization is something which only became prevalent in my mind with the increased militarization throughout this region, especially after learning about the history of my island’s exposure to deadly cancer-causing chemicals introduced to by the military. They openly plan to continue harming our lands and waters with new firing ranges and missile defense systems. Of the various ways McCarthy explores the American nuclear legacy in his last pair of books, the inclusion of cancer as a consequence of nuclear power is what drew me in.

Brief Synopsis

The Passenger and Stella Maris are the first novels Cormac McCarthy has published since 2006’s The Road. The books are centered on siblings, Bobby and Alicia Western, each bearing the burden of their father’s legacy as a scientist who helped J. Robert Oppenheimer create the atomic bomb. Despite the strong connection between these two novels, with Stella Maris being the companion novel to The Passenger, the two texts stand in stark contrast to each other.

The Passenger takes place in 1980 and follows Robert “Bobby” Western, a salvage diver who, at the start of the text, is exploring a downed private aircraft in Christian Pass, Mississippi, where the pilot’s flight bag, the plane’s black box, and the tenth passenger are missing. What follows is Bobby’s pursuit by an unnamed agency, who in turn are using the plane crash and the missing passenger to harass Bobby and strip him of his assets. While Bobby endures this harassment, we learn a great deal about his life from conversations he has with various friends and acquaintances, spanning topics such as philosophy, physics, and mathematics, environmental displacement, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Bobby’s burden of the legacy of his father, and the guilt he continues to carry about his sister’s fate.

Stella Maris takes place in 1972 in Black River Falls, Wisconsin at the Stella Maris, a non-denominational facility and hospice for psychiatric medical patients, nearly a decade before the events of The Passenger. Stella Maris follows Alicia Western, a genius mathematician, schizophrenic, and Bobby’s younger sister as she is reeling from the reality of her brother being on life support and potentially brain-dead. As with The Passenger, McCarthy touches upon similar topics such as the Westerns’ father’s involvement in the Manhattan Project and subsequent atomic testing in the South Pacific, the nature of entertainment, and her thoughts on mathematics and why she abandoned it.

Though both novels are ambitious in scope and jump from one topic to another with every conversation between either Bobby and his friends or Alicia and her therapist, the Manhattan Project and the elder Western’s role in creating the atom bomb as a way of paving America’s path toward nuclear supremacy is the one constant that threads its way through both texts.

Belly of the Beast: Hobbes’ Leviathan in The Passenger & Stella Maris

In both novels, McCarthy attempts to capture America’s nuclear legacy first through the plight of Bobby and Alicia’s parents. Starting with The Passenger, McCarthy focuses on the Manhattan Project and how the state not only displaced its people but effectively sentenced those intimately involved in the weapon’s creation to a slow and painful death. The nuclear-induced plight of the Western family begins with Bobby and Alicia’s grandmother, Granellen, who was evicted from their house in 1944 where the Y-12 National Security Complex would be built.

The trouble for Granellen and her children, Royal and Bobby and Alicia’s mother and uncle, began a little over a decade before the US entered World War II, when they were evicted from family land in Oak Ridge by the Tennessee Valley Authority and forced to live in a rented house. They were evicted again in 1944 so the Y-12 National Security Complex could be constructed. The Y-12 in Oakridge, Tennessee was the first national center built for handling, processing, and storing enriched uranium during the Manhattan Project. Through Bobby and Alicia’s mother, McCarthy articulates this as “[g]odless and that while it had poisoned back to elemental mud all things living upon the ground it was far from being done. It was just beginning.”[1] Unfortunately, this is where McCarthy ends his exploration of the consequences of the Manhattan Project’s legacy in The Passenger, as Bobby soon finds himself on the run from an unnamed agency pursuing him for some unknown reason, possibly related to his father’s work.

Outside of these flashbacks in The Passenger, McCarthy’s critique of America’s rise to nuclear power is implicit and begins in the early and quiet hours of the morning, on an oil rig where Bobby is reading Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, a seminal work of political philosophy which has significantly shaped how a state is defined today. Hobbes’ Leviathanspans the formation and politics of the state, human nature, and Christianity.

Human nature for Hobbes necessitates the state because liberty, dominion, and self-preservation through violent means are inherent characteristics of human nature which will always result in perpetual war. Hobbes’ solution to this is the state or, as he writes, the commonwealth or Leviathan, which is formed when a multitude comes together and imbues an individual or a select few with the power to act on their behalf to guarantee peace. This peace can only be enforced through civil laws which bind the multitude to serve the state and only apply to the multitude, which the sovereign is separate from in what political philosophers call a state of exception.[2] McCarthy’s choice to depict Bobby reading Hobbes’ Leviathan calls into focus his view and critique of the American state, specifically how the state of exception is used to justify not only the use of the first weapon of mass destruction but its continued development and testing on Americans.

Stella Maris is a remarkably different novel than The Passenger both in tone and scope. What sets Stella Maris apart is Alicia’s disentanglement from the institutions of the state that her brother, parents, and grandparents could never escape. McCarthy uses Alicia’s position and placement in the Stella Maris hospice facility to further examine and critique America’s nuclear weapons development and testing programs, specifically in weekly conversations with her therapist, Dr. Cohen. Alicia’s conversations with Dr. Cohen reveal more about the Western siblings’ father and his role as a scientist in the Manhattan Project and after, during the creation and testing of the hydrogen bomb in the Marshall Islands.

Alicia’s recollections of her father’s thoughts on the use of nuclear weapons is important to note, as McCarthy has created a fascinating figure in Bobby and Alicia’s father, who, according to one conversation between Alicia and Dr. Cohen, believed that “whoever built the bomb was going to blow something up with it […] better us than them.”[3] It is with this recollection that the elder Western’s complicity with state-sanctioned violence sets him apart from Oppenheimer, who after witnessing the devastating potential of nuclear weapons during the Trinity Test in New Mexico in July, 1945 and after learning of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following month, called for international controls on nuclear weapons in fear of the potential devastation a nuclear war would create.

After the conclusion of the Manhattan Project, the elder Western patriarch continued working with Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, that would later be used in the Pacific Proving Grounds, in what Alicia blankly refers to as the “South Pacific.”  The elder Western’s nonchalant view of nuclear weapons development and testing explains why the events of the Pacific Proving grounds are reduced to mere weapons tests in the South Pacific. However, I found McCarthy’s choice to not even mention the Republic of the Marshall Islands, where the Pacific Proving Grounds was located, disappointing.

Up to this point, McCarthy has only used the plight of the Western family, including Bobby and Alicia’s parents’ deaths from cancer, to illustrate the consequences of the Manhattan Project and how the state, in its quest for both survival and dominance, chooses to sacrifice itself for the maintenance and continuation of its form of centralized power. When presented with the opportunity to hone in on the explicit consequences of America’s nuclear legacy, however, McCarthy falls short. To make matters worse, the image McCarthy labels the “symbol of the age”[4] is the explosion of the Trinity bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. While this test illustrated the devastating potential of nuclear weapons and sparked regret and doubt among scientists such as Oppenheimer, it does not represent the full consequences of the Manhattan Project’s legacy.

The Tomb, The Symbol of Nuclear Power and Consequence

The Trinity nuclear explosion in New Mexico is certainly a symbol of the weapons’ devastating potential, but what truly represents the legacy of The Manhattan Project and the consequences of America’s rise as a nuclear superpower does not lie in anything that McCarthy depicts and explores in The Passenger or Stella Maris. The consequences wrought by the success of the Manhattan Project and the hydrogen bomb lies within the Pacific Proving Grounds, specifically Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, where a total of sixty-seven nuclear explosives tests were conducted. This is what McCarthy refers to in Stella Maris as “the South Pacific.”

The Republic of the Marshall Islands became a part of the US when the United Nations ruled that the Marshall Islands fell under the US jurisdiction as a part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, but it gained its independence in 1986 and became The Republic of the Marshall Islands. In the short time that the Marshall Islands was an American territory, the US would “evict” islanders and use their homes as a nuclear weapons testing site where sixty-seven devices were exploded on and over land and underwater. These tests in the area we now know as the Pacific Proving Grounds displaced the people of Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll and exposed them to lethal amounts of radiation over and over and over again.

The Pacific Proving Grounds were used to test the same atomic bombs that were used against Japan, as well as for testing the feasibility of the hydrogen bomb, which is exponentially more powerful and devastating than its predecessor. And though the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls were vacated when they were commandeered for nuclear-weapons testing, surrounding atolls also suffered immensely from nuclear fallout, with the most infamous nuclear weapons test being the Castle Bravo thermonuclear test in 1954.

Susan Rust, author of “How the U.S. betrayed the Marshall Islands, kindling the next nuclear disaster” in the L.A. Times, spoke with Nerje Joseph who, at seven years old, witnessed the Castle Bravo thermonuclear explosion from her home in Rongelap Atoll, 100 miles away. She recounts her memory of seeing the “usual sun, topping the horizon in the east and bringing light and warmth to the tropical lagoon near her home. Then there was another sun, rising from the western sky. It lighted up the horizon, shining orange at first, then turning pink, then disappearing as if it had never been there at all […]. Hours later, the fallout from Castle Bravo rained down like snow on their homes, contaminating their skin, water and food.”[5] Rust further cites Joseph and government documents which detail the evacuation of Joseph and other islanders two days after the Castle Bravo test.

However, by that time “some islanders were beginning to suffer from acute radiation poisoning — their hair fell out in clumps, their skin was burned, and they were vomiting.”[6] There are countless more testimonials that detail the horrors and consequences of the nuclear fallout. Unfortunately, the end result of each testimony remains the same for the people of the Marshall Islands: a sentencing to disease and premature death, specifically from “cancers of the thyroid, stomach, and colon, as well as leukemia,” according to a study from the National Cancer Institute,[7] as well as banishment from their ancestral homes—made refugees by a country that sacrificed them for the sake of its “national security.”

With the Pacific Proving Grounds, the US also manufactured a potential nuclear-climate disaster. It did so by relocating 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive waste to Runit Island and containing it within a concrete dome known as The Cactus Dome, or The Tomb, as it is known by the Marshallese. Though the Tomb was initially understood by the Marshallese to have been designed to protect locals from radioactive contamination, according to Rust, the US asserts it was only meant to hold garbage, not act as a radioactive shield. The dome was constructed in 1980 and now, forty-three years later, we are in imminent danger from rising sea levels that could unseal the dome and redistribute radioactive soil and debris throughout the Marshall Islands and greater Micronesia. To make matters worse, despite officials’ efforts in the Marshall Islands to lobby the US to help keep the dome from collapsing, American officials maintain that since the dome is on Marshallese land, it is solely the responsibility of the Republic of Marshall Islands’ government to maintain.

(The Trinity nuclear explosion in New Mexico, 1945)

Circling back to McCarthy’s assertion on the symbol of the nuclear age, it becomes clear that the Trinity bomb’s explosion in New Mexico symbolized America’s retaliation against the Japanese in World War II and the sacrifices demanded of American citizens during wartime. But the Tomb of Runit Island is a more accurate symbol of the destructive legacy of the Manhattan Project. America’s careless abandon of the Marshallese people and the surrounding people of the Micronesian region further illustrates the inherently violent, cruel, and exploitative nature on which the US is founded.

The civilian sacrifices and casualties resulting from America’s nuclear weapons program are symptomatic of a larger problem inherent to all states: domination, survival, and the concentration of power within the few over the many. The plight of the Western family in both The Passenger and Stella Maris and the sinister legacy of the Manhattan Project in the Pacific Proving Grounds represent but a few of the extremes to which the state is willing to go to maintain and consolidate its power.

The moment in The Passenger when Bobby contemplates his existence at his grandmother’s house continues to trouble me: McCarthy attributes Auschwitz and Nagasaki as the “sister events that forever sealed the fate of the West.”[8] With the legacy and consequences of the Manhattan project still unfolding and with renewed geopolitical tensions on the rise, it almost appears as if the repetition of this cycle is imminent.

Looking Forward

Though not directly affected by the “nuclearization” of the Pacific during the Cold War, I could not help but be deeply moved by reading The Passenger and Stella Maris, leading me to further examine the militarization of my island more critically than I had previously.

Though the people of Guam did not suffer to the same degree as the Marshallese between 1946 and 1962, Guam residents received “measurable fallout during the period of U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific from 1946 to 1962,” according to Speaker Therese Terlaje, of the Guam Legislature. With the Tomb on Runit Island already breached by seawater and in danger of becoming unsealed with rising sea levels, I feel the existential threat of a renewed and more widespread sentence to a slow and painful death by radiation exposure looming.

Further militarization in the region is inevitable and with recent war game indicating how Guam will suffer during a potential conflict between China and the US, the mobilization to “beef” up the island’s defenses is already at play.

Though World War II has passed, memories of the US military’s reaction to the Japanese invasion of Guam and their prioritization of Americans and military personnel over the CHamorus (the people of the Mariana Islands) and those who had lived on Guam during the Japanese invasion has not faded from memory. With renewed geopolitical tension between China and Taiwan, Guam has again become a target. Though the island has often been subjected to threats from North Korea in the past, the island has not seen serious missile defense development until now, with the US military planning on developing twenty new missile defense sites on Guam near both military and civilian infrastructure, but with no proposals for civilian shelters.[9] What must also be taken into account is the impact the construction of these new missile defense sites will bring. Like the Marshall Islands, military weapons development and testing will impact the people of Guam’s health.

The question to ask, with renewed geopolitical tensions on the rise, is what will now happen in the Pacific? The state-sponsored violence that the people of the Marshall Islands and of the wider Micronesian region have suffered is not too far in the past for our people to have forgotten. Though the numbers of those who lived through nuclear weapons tests are dwindling, they are still here and their memories and stories are immortalized in both oral and written histories. Though McCarthy, in Stella Maris, posits that “the next great war won’t arrive until everyone who remembers the last one has died,”[10] wars are waged when those in power deem it necessary, despite the enduring consequences on civilians. I hoped McCarthy would offer some kind of guidance, but unfortunately does no such thing, except to state plainly what had happened without probing further.

Returning to Bobby’s reflection of the West’s sealed fate in The Passenger, I find McCarthy’s choice to use “fate” instead of “path” troubling, as it suggests that the future will not change. McCarthy’s proclivity toward nihilism is not new but what surprised me was, in Stella Maris, during the first session between Alicia and Dr. Cohen, when the doctor writes a brief aside on the purpose of entertainment being not to create an affirmation of the world, but to set it in question.[11]

Though McCarthy fails to deliver the kind of questions that America’s nuclear weapons development programs demand, we can turn to others. Keeping in mind his rumination on the purpose of entertainment not as an affirmation of the world but a tool to question it, I remember Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijner. In her performed poem “Anointed,” she asks “[w]ho gave them this power? Who anointed them with the power to burn?”[12] America’s and other countries’ rise to nuclear power and their ability to annihilate whole peoples and ecosystems does not come from any external entity: the potential for annihilation and the violence that states are known for is self-appointed.

Epilogue: McCarthy’s Legacy

Since I began to write this review, Cormac McCarthy has passed away. The Passenger and Stella Maris are fitting conclusions to his remarkable oeuvre, as each are powerful meditations on life, death, grief, metaphysics, and mathematics. What stands out from these last two of his books are his explorations and ruminations on violence from different angles and perspectives than previous works. Violence and coercion have always been mainstays of McCarthy’s work, as forces that shape personal and historical trajectories. What sets these two apart from the rest of McCarthy’s work is his examination of the consequences of the use of state violence. The indifferent and banal complicity of the elder Western’s participation in both the Manhattan Project and subsequent nuclear weapons development and testing in the Republic of the Marshall Islands remains uncontested by both the elder Western and his two children. Looking back at the Western father, it becomes clear that McCarthy’s final exploration and rumination on violence as a world-shaping and warping force is enabled by a kind of banal complicity that carries immense consequence.

An important question is what would have happened if these scientists had withdrawn their support? Though this type of fiery resistance is absent in both The Passenger and Stella Maris, it can be found elsewhere in McCarthy’s work and, from an anarchist perspective, if anything can be said about McCarthy’s legacy it is this: in the face of adversity, we must keep the fire, endure, and resist being lulled into the banal complicity the state tempts us with; continue to resist and abolish its institutions; and, finally, care for each other.

Dylan Patrick Delos Santos Clymer is Filipino-CHamoru and lives on the island of Guåhan, an unincorporated territory of the United States. He graduated from the University of Guam with a Master of Arts in English. He is a reader, writer, and fledgling anarchist.



1 McCarthy, Cormac, The Passenger (Vintage, 2022), 175.

2 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press, 1998). See discussion on the state of exception in “Part One: The Logic of Sovereignty,” 15.

3 McCarthy, Cormac, Stella Maris (Vintage, 2022), 115-116.

4 McCarthy, Cormac, Stella Maris, 113.

5 Rust, Suzanne,. “How the US Betrayed the Marshall Islands, kindling the next nuclear disaster” (Los Angeles Times, 2019).

6 Rust, Suzanne. “How the US Betrayed the Marshall Islands, kindling the next nuclear disaster” (Los Angeles Times, 2019).

7 “Dose Estimation and Predicted Risk for Marshall Islands Residents” (National Cancer Institute: Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, 2019).

8 McCarthy, The Passenger, 165.

9 II Taitano, Joe, “Panelists talk missile defense, Guam security ahead of possible ‘Taiwan Crisis’” (Guam Pacific Daily News, 2023)

10 McCarthy, Cormac, Stella Maris, 71.

11 McCarthy, Cormac, Stella Maris, 23.

12 Jetnil-Kijiner, Dan Lin & Kathy. n.d. Anointed (w/ Subtitles) – by Dan Lin & Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEVpExaY2Fs, 04:34-04:44.