The Passage, by Justin Cronin, is one of “those” novels. What kind? Well, it’s one of those literary page-turners: a sleek, fast-paced, shoot-em-up, chase-em-down bestseller, destined for huge film success, that “sophisticated” readers don’t have to turn their nose up at. It’s one of those mainstream bestseller books that make use of a multitude of plot points and genre tropes lovingly claimed by fans of said genre, who will surely sniff “I was reading about army-spawned vampire-like genetic mutations wiping out the human race ages ago,” akin to those guys who only like a band when their fan base can fit into a camper van but who mock the new fans who flock to concert sites in the tens of thousands. It’s one of those easy-to-pitch mash-up books: “It’s Stephen King’s The Stand meets Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and Congo!” “It’s Twilight meets The Road!” “It’s Witness meets I Am Legend” (actually, part of it is kinda Witness meets I Am Legend”). It’s a “vampire” novel. You know, like Twilight (if Twilight were really really cool and really really well-written). And finally, it’s one of those novels that any author is going to curse themselves for not having written. Yep, it’s one of “those” kind of books. Oh, and it’s also great.
It’s the near-future and we’re introduced to a plot involving vampire-like creatures in South America, army viral experiments, a pair of FBI agents collecting death row inmates under the radar, a highly-fortified secret laboratory with highly paranoid security, a young nun who has fled trauma in her native Africa, and a six-year-old girl being raised by her spiraling-ever-downward single mother. And then, as they always do, the army viral experiments go dangerously wrong and the highly-paranoid, impossible-to-escape-from security fails. It also turns out, as always, that nuns are tougher and more indomitable than you think, and world-weary personally traumatized police-type guys always have one more moral spark that drives them to indignant action. And then all hell breaks loose. Almost literally. Cue end of part one.
Fast forward a hundred or so years to a small remnant of the human race living in The First Colony in California amidst a post-apocalyptic United States (and possibly world) ravaged by the “virals.” The Colony has survived through 24/7 vigilance, strict laws, and the fact that they still have working high-powered spotlights to keep the virals mostly at bay. But we all know stable Colonies of humans holding out against a horde of ravening creatures outside their walls never stay stable. And soon enough, for various reasons — the largest being the appearance of the young girl from book one, now only seemingly about 7-10 years older — a small band of Colonists set forth for Colorado, which is the source of the infection and perhaps the source, as well, of the cure.
Genre fans will of course recognize many of these elements (as well as others in the book) as well-trodden paths. However, the measure of a story isn’t wholly in the originality of its parts, but in the quality, construction, and melding together of those parts. And here Justin Cronin mostly hits home run after home run.
The important characters are all sharply depicted, fully fleshed personalities. And by “important” I mean not just three or four main characters, but rather any character who gets more than a few pages of face time and who does more than act as a train switch to divert us down a new plot line. That ranges from the FBI agent Wolgast, whom we spend a lot of Book One on, to an imperious nun who is in and out of the storyline in a matter of minutes. Wolgast, along with Carter (one of the death row inmates), Lacey (the young nun), and Jeannette (the young girl’s mother), along with her daughter Amy, are especially, achingly drawn. You have to respect the risk Justin Cronin takes by painstakingly making us care about these characters and then, after 200+ pages, leaving them behind to start anew with a wholly different group. But, no surprise by now, this group equally grabs us, from Alicia, a recklessly effective viral killer, to Peter, a young colonist fighting his own feelings of inadequacy as he gropes his way toward becoming a leader and a greater understanding of the world and his role in it, and a host of characters in between, some from the Colony and others they meet in their journey to Colorado.
Stylistically, the book shifts gears seamlessly and effectively between episodic and intimate, between horror and suspense and thriller and action and quiet character-driven storytelling. The dialogue is consistently crisp and spot on. The prose is sharp and concise and nicely chooses its moments to break into the more poetic or rhythmic, as with one of my favorite passages:
When all time ended, and the world had lost its memory, and the man that he was had receded from view like a ship sailing away, rounding the blade of earth with his old life locked in its hold; and when the gyring stars gazed down upon nothing, and the moon in its arc no longer remembered his name, and all that remained was the great sea of hunger on which he floated forever — still, inside him, in the deepest place was this: one year. The mountain and the turning seasons, and Amy. Amy and the Year of Zero.
The plot, as mentioned, rockets along. Not that it’s always at a breakneck pace: there are many quiet moments and slowed down scenes, but in the sense that the reader is always being driven forward effortlessly, like when you’re driving down the highway and you suddenly realize you have no idea of how you got 40 miles farther down the road. The Passage is a nearly 800 page book that feels like a 300 page one; you suddenly look up and the mile marker tells you you’ve somehow just read another 200 pages. And while, as mentioned, we’ve seen many of the plot points before, Justin Cronin adds his own take and twist on the vampires/virals, so that they will in many ways seem transformed into something almost completely new. It certainly adds a depth and complexity to the “battle against ravening blood-sucking or brains-eating creatures” that we rarely see in such works.
The Passage is the first of a trilogy, though it certainly ends with a decent sense of resolution, and one could satisfactorily end with its close. But not happily. After 700+ pages, you’re going to be wanting a lot more. And sooner rather than later. Though of course you’ll have to wait an agonizing year or so. Yep, it’s one of “those” books too.
It’s as long as it is intense, deep, moving and thrilling. Justin Cronin’s The Passage is a vivid and passionate story that freshens the saturated “vampire” media marketplace. A horde of roving virals, as they’re called in this anonymous future, take on some of the mythological aspects of vampires — they can’t get enough fresh blood, they seemingly live forever, and they have superhuman strength. But there’s no romanticising of the fabled vampire in this story, and truly they’re not vampires of the known mythologies that are all the pop culture rage.
Twelve people who are infected in a government human weapons program escape their maximum security facility in Colorado and go on a country- and, apparently, world-wide feeding frenzy that infects most of humanity. Nothing, however, is ordinary about Cronin’s take on this scenario.
The first third of the book establishes the background of the virus and the key players who orbit its existence. Several stories weave and interconnect to set the table for Earth’s bleak future. Truly these introductory chapters could stand alone as their on short stories, as Cronin crafts wonderfully bold characters.
Amy is the lone viral who didn’t go “wrong.” She’s well written and subtle, and though she had few lines of dialogue, was the most interesting character throughout, portraying an exquisitely innocent and delicate nature.
The story spans an epic 100 years, and while the action and violence is vivid, it’s not grotesque nor over-the-top. The amazing strength from the story, though, comes from its very human characters, their characterizations and well-considered inter-relationships.
The popularity of The Passage demonstrates its success on multiple literary levels. I highly recommend this read.
The Passage — (2010-2012) Publisher: “It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.” First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear — of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse. As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. He is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors. But for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey — spanning miles and decades — towards the time and place where she must finish what should never have begun. With The Passage, award-winning author Justin Cronin has written both a relentlessly suspenseful adventure and an epic chronicle of human endurance in the face of unprecedented catastrophe and unimaginable danger. Its inventive storytelling, masterful prose, and depth of human insight mark it as a crucial and transcendent work of modern fiction.