How many of us, particularly as students, have dutifully set out with a summer-reading list of necessary classics and quickly abandoned them for some juicy story that called out irresistibly? Sometimes, as when summer goes by while you're journeying through The Count of Monte Cristo, those things coincide. But my favorite summer reading memories have very little to do with approved reading. My first brutally hot summer in New York City was saved thanks to a bedroom air conditioner and Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. A few years later, I endured my wife taunting me about reading a "girly" book during the few weeks I was happily enmeshed in Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber (which I use to annoy literary types by calling it the greatest novel of the 20th century -- most days I'm kidding).
In summer reading, size matters. Especially during the dog days, you want to look at the brick of pages in your right hand and know that you'll be happily turning them for a while, out of the heat, in a place that holds more appeal than vistas of baking asphalt or scorched lawns.
That kind of book may be popular but it isn't common. So it will be no surprise if readers feel they've found one in Justin Cronin's The Passage. At 784 pages, it's fat. And as the first part of a trilogy, it holds the promise of two more long reads to come. Also, as a story about a band of human pioneers trying to ride out a plague of vampires that has turned America into a virus-ridden wasteland, it arrives without any promise of being good for you.
Which isn't to say it might not be good for fiction. Cronin, a professor of English at Rice University, is working here from an honorable, and unfashionable, impulse: to tell an epic story that will appeal to a broad swath of readers. Nobody embarks on an epic trilogy without ambition, but it seems to me that what Cronin is doing here is more about service. He's working for the reader, he wants to immerse whoever picks up the book and, to quote from Stephen King's advance praise, to make the ordinary world disappear.
For a while he does, though he begins in a recognizably quotidian setting. The book opens in rural Iowa where a teenage diner waitress becomes, in short order, pregnant, homeless, and a roadside prostitute. Her little girl, Amy, who will become both this book's heroine and its presiding spirit, is targeted for a secret government project doing human testing on a virus that may hold the key to immortality. But when Wolgast, the FBI agent in charge of procuring subjects, finds out that his orders are to get a little girl rather than the death-row inmates he's been signing up, he balks and goes fugitive to save Amy.
This tale of man and child going on the lam as a vampire virus sends an already precarious America spiralling into anarchy promises to be both narratively and emotionally enfolding. But when Cronin jumps ahead nearly a hundred years to follow a group of survivors who are carrying on as best they can in a forest fortress, something in the story goes flat.
The inevitable comparisons to Stephen King remind us that, even at his most fantastic, King's characters never feel distant from the reality of our lives. And King's propensity towards sentimentality is overcome by the accumulated force of his storytelling. By contrast, the spare, dry language Cronin uses calls up Cormac McCarthy at his faux-mythological worst:
She remembered people. She remembered the Man. She remembered the other man and his wife and the boy and then the woman. She remembered no one at all. She remembered one day thinking: I am alone. There is no I but I.
Reading The Passage was, for me, a divided experience. I wasn't held by the story even as I was cheering on what Cronin is doing for readers. Though his pacing falters, he already shows a feel for intercutting simultaneous strains of narrative.
Recently, a friend I got back in touch with after many years told me, somewhat sheepishly, that she enjoyed reading Stephen King. I told her she had no reason to be embarrassed by reading one of the contemporary novelists who will last. It's too soon to say whether Justin Cronin will last. But the impulse behind his wish to give readers a big fat piece of storytelling pleasure has already lasted centuries. Hell, it could outlive vampires.
…by the third chapter, trash was piling up in our house because I was too scared to take out the garbage at night. It's a macabre pleasure to see what a really talented novelist can do with these old Transylvanian tropes…Cronin has stripped away the lurid religious trappings of the vampire myth and gone with a contemporary biomedical framework. Imagine Michael Crichton crossbreeding Stephen King's The Stand and Salem's Lot in that lab at Jurassic Park, with rich infusions of Robert McCammon's Swan Song, "Battlestar Galactica" and even Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
The Washington Post
While it relies at times on convention, The Passage is astutely plotted and imaginative enough to satisfy the most bloodthirsty reader…Cronin leaps back and forth in time, sprinkling his narrative with diaries, e-mail messages, maps, newspaper articles and legal documents. Sustaining such a long book is a tough endeavor, and every so often his prose slackens into inert phrases…For the most part, though, he artfully unspools his plot's complexities, and seemingly superfluous details come to connect in remarkable ways.
The New York Times
Fans of vampire fiction who are bored by the endless hordes of sensitive, misunderstood Byronesque bloodsuckers will revel in Cronin’s engrossingly horrific account of a post-apocalyptic America overrun by the gruesome reality behind the wish-fulfillment fantasies. When a secret project to create a super-soldier backfires, a virus leads to a plague of vampiric revenants that wipes out most of the population. One of the few bands of survivors is the Colony, a FEMA-established island of safety bunkered behind massive banks of lights that repel the “virals,” or “dracs”—but a small group realizes that the aging technological defenses will soon fail. When members of the Colony find a young girl, Amy, living outside their enclave, they realize that Amy shares the virals’ agelessness, but not the virals’ mindless hunger, and they embark on a search to find answers to her condition. PEN/Hemingway Award-winner Cronin (The Summer Guest) uses a number of tropes that may be overly familiar to genre fans, but he manages to engage the reader with a sweeping epic style. The first of a proposed trilogy, it’s already under development by director Ripley Scott and the subject of much publicity buzz (Retail Nation, Mar. 15). (June)
A literary richness that rivals Stephen King's The Stand.
Magnificently unnerving . . . A The Stand-meets-The Road journey. A-
[An] apocalyptic epic...Expect a lot of interest in this title.
The Wall Street Journal
A postapocalyptic vampire trilogy, which Stephen King has hailed as a captivating epic...a potential commercial blockbuster by an award-winning literary novelist.
This summer’s new 'it' book…a postapocalyptic epic…We've just found our summer escape! Top 10 Summer Books for 2010
Addictive, terrifying, and deeply satisfying. Not only is this one of the year's best thrillers; it's one of the best of the past decade - maybe one of the best ever.
From the Publisher
“Magnificently unnerving . . . The Stand meets The Road.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Great entertainment . . . [a] big, engrossing read.”—The Dallas Morning News
“Mythic storytelling.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Cronin’s unguessable plot and appealing characters will seize your heart and mind.”—Parade
“Cronin has given us what could be the best book of the summer. Don’t wait to dive into The Passage.”—USA Today
“[A] blockbuster . . . astutely plotted and imaginative.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Justin Cronin has written a wild, headlong, sweeping extravaganza of a novel. The Passage is the literary equivalent of a unicorn: a bona fide thriller that is sharply written, deeply humane, ablaze with big ideas, and absolutely impossible to put down.” —Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
“Cronin gets it just right; the combination of attentive realism and doomsday stakes makes for a mesmerizing experience.”—Salon
“We’ve just found our summer escape!”—Elle
“Read this book and the ordinary world disappears.”—Stephen King, author of Full Dark, No Stars
“Great storytelling . . . vital, tender, and compelling.” —O: The Oprah Magazine
“Meet what is likely to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer.”—People
“Addictive, terrifying, and deeply satisfying. Not only is this one of the year’s best thrillers; it’s one of the best of the past decade—maybe one of the best ever.”—Men’s Journal
Wow! Nearly 40 hours in length, the unabridged audio recording of PEN/Hemingway Award-winning writer Cronin's detail-rich third novel is nothing short of epic excellence. The first entry in a new trilogy, the book is set in a bleak, postapocalyptic America at a time when the world is overrun by vampire-like humans infected by a virus. Divided into two huge parts—pre- and postoutbreak—the tale is equally gripping and frightening and the characters are very well developed. To boot, Audie Award winner Scott Brick's (see Behind the Mike, LJ 10/15/09) narration is nothing short of masterly. Impossible to stop listening to; highly recommended. [The New York Times best-selling Ballantine hc was an Editors' Spring Pick, LJ 2/15/10; a film adaptation is currently in production.—Ed.]—Scott R. DiMarco, Mansfield Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib.
Literary author Cronin (Mary and O'Neil, 2001, etc.) turns in an apocalyptic thriller in the spirit of Stephen King or Michael Crichton. You know times are weird when swarms of Bolivian bats swoop from the skies and kill humans-or, as one eyewitness reports of an unfortunate GI, off fighting the good fight against the drug lords, "they actually lifted him off his feet before they bored through him like hot knives through butter." Meanwhile, up north, in the very near future, gasoline prices are soaring and New Orleans has been hit by a second hurricane. Wouldn't you know it, but the world is broken, and mad science has something to do with it-in this instance, the kind of mad science that involves trying to engineer super-soldiers but that instead has created a devastating epidemic, with zombie flourishes-here called "virals"-and nods to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and pretty much every other creature feature. Bad feds and good guys alike race around, trying to keep the world safe for American democracy. In the end the real protector of civilization turns out to be a "little girl in Iowa," Amy Harper Bellafonte, who has been warehoused in a nunnery by her down-on-her-luck mother. Mom, a waitress with hidden resources of her own, pitches in, as does a world-weary FBI agent-is there any other kind? Thanks to Amy, smart though shy, the good guys prevail. Or so we think, but you probably don't want to go opening your door at night to find out. The young girl as heroine and role model is a nice touch. Otherwise a pretty ordinary production, with little that hasn't been seen before.
Read an Excerpt
Wolgast had been to the Compound only once, the previous summer, to meet with Colonel Sykes. Not a job interview, exactly; it had been made clear to Wolgast that the assignment was his if he wanted it. A pair of soldiers drove him in a van with blacked out windows, but Wolgast could tell they were taking him west from Denver, into the mountains. The drive took six hours, and by the time they pulled into the Compound, he’d actually managed to fall asleep. He stepped from the van into the bright sunshine of a summer afternoon. He stretched and looked around. From the topography, he’d have guessed he was somewhere around Telluride. It could have been further north. The air felt thin and clean in his lungs; he felt the dull throb of a high-altitude headache at the top of his skull.
He was met in the parking lot by a civilian, a compact man dressed in jeans and a khaki shirt rolled at the sleeves, a pair of old-fashioned aviators perched on his wide, faintly bulbous nose. This was Richards.
“Hope the ride wasn’t too bad,” Richards said as they shook hands. Up close Wolgast saw that Richards’ cheeks were pockmarked with old acne scars. “We’re pretty high up here. If you’re not used to it, you’ll want to take it easy.”
Richards escorted Wolgast across the parking area to a building he called the Chalet, which was exactly what it sounded like: a large Tudor structure, three stories tall, with the exposed timbers of an old-fashioned sportsman’s lodge. The mountains had once been full of these places, Wolgast knew, hulking relics from an era before time-share condos and modern resorts. The building faced an open lawn, and beyond, at a hundred yards or so, a cluster of more workaday structures: cinderblock barracks, a half-dozen military inflatables, a low-slung building that resembled a roadside motel. Military vehicles, Humvees and smaller jeeps and five ton trucks, were moving up and down the drive; in the center of the lawn, a group of men with broad chests and trim haircuts, naked to the waist, were sunning themselves on lawn chairs.
Stepping into the Chalet, Wolgast had the disorienting sensation of peeking behind a movie set; the place had been gutted to the studs, its original architecture replaced by the neutral textures of a modern office building: gray carpeting, institutional lighting, acoustic tile drop ceilings. He might have been in a dentist’s office, or the high-rise off the freeway where he met his accountant once a year to do his taxes. They stopped at the front desk, where Richards asked him to turn over his handheld and his weapon, which he passed to the guard, a kid in cammos, who tagged them. There was an elevator, but Richards walked past it and led Wolgast down a narrow hallway to a heavy metal door that opened on a flight of stairs. They ascended to the second floor, and made their way down another non-descript hallway to Sykes’ office.
Sykes rose from behind his desk as they entered: a tall, well-built man in uniform, his chest spangled with the various bars and little bits of color that Wolgast had never understood. His office was neat as a pin, its arrangement of objects, right down to the framed photos on his desk, giving the impression of having been placed for maximum efficiency. Resting in the center of the desk was a single manila folder, fat with folded paper. Wolgast knew it was almost certainly his personnel file, or some version of it.
They shook hands and Sykes offered him coffee, which Wolgast accepted. He wasn’t drowsy but the caffeine, he knew, would help the headache.
“Sorry about the bullshit with the van,” Sykes said, and waved him to a chair. “That’s just how we do things.”
A soldier brought in the coffee, a plastic carafe and two china cups on a tray. Richards remained standing behind Sykes’ desk, his back to the broad windows that looked out on the woodlands that ringed the Compound. Sykes explained what he wanted Wolgast to do. It was all quite straight forward, he said, and by now Wolgast knew the basics. The Army needed between ten and twenty death-row inmates to serve in the third-stage trials of an experimental drug therapy, codenamed Project Noah. In exchange for their consent, these men would have their sentences commuted to life without parole. It would be Wolgast’s job to obtain the signatures of these men, nothing more. Everything had been legally vetted, but because the project was a matter of national security, all of these men would be declared legally dead. Thereafter, they would spend the rest of their lives in the care of the federal penal system, a white-collar prison camp, under assumed identities. The men would be chosen based upon a number of factors, but all would be men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five with no living first-degree relatives. Wolgast would report directly to Sykes; he’d have no other contact, though he’d remain, technically, in the employment of the Bureau.
“Do I have to pick them?” Wolgast asked.
Sykes shook his head. “That’s our job. You’ll get your orders from me. All you have to do is get their consent. Once they’re signed on, the Army will take it from there. They’ll be moved to the nearest federal lock-up, then we’ll transport them here.”
Wolgast thought a moment. “Colonel, I have to ask--“
“What we’re doing?” He seemed, at that moment, to permit himself an almost human-looking smile.
Wolgast nodded. “I understand I can’t be very specific. But I’m going to be asking them to sign over their whole lives. I have to tell them something.”
Sykes exchanged a look with Richards, who shrugged. “I’ll leave you now,” Richards said, and nodded at Wolgast. “Agent.”
When Richards had left, Sykes leaned back in his chair. “I’m not a biochemist, agent. You’ll have to be satisfied with the layman’s version. Here’s the background, at least the part I can tell you. About ten years ago, the CDC got a call from a doctor in La Paz. He had four patients, all Americans, who had come down with what looked like Hantavirus – high fever, vomiting, muscle pain, headache, hypoxemia. The four of them had been part of an eco-tour, deep in the jungle. They claimed that they were part of a group of fourteen but had gotten separated from the others and had been wandering in the jungle for weeks. It was sheer luck that they’d stumbled onto a remote trading post run by a bunch of Franciscan friars, who arranged their transport to La Paz. Now, Hanta isn’t the common cold, but it’s not exactly rare, either, so none of this would have been more than a blip on the CDC’s radar if not for one thing. All of them were terminal cancer patients. The tour was organized by an organization called ‘Last Wish.’ You’ve heard of them?”
Wolgast nodded. “I thought they just took people skydiving, things like that.”
“That’s what I thought, too. But apparently not. Of the four, one had an inoperable brain tumor, two had acute lymphocytic leukemia, and the fourth had ovarian cancer. And every single one of them became well. Not just the Hanta, or whatever it was. No cancer. Not a trace.”
Wolgast felt lost. “I don’t get it.”
Sykes sipped his coffee. “Well, neither did anyone at the CDC. But something had happened, some interaction between their immune systems and something, most likely viral, that they’d been exposed to in the jungle. Something they ate? The water they drank? No one could figure it out. They couldn’t even say exactly where they’d been.” He leaned forward over his desk. “Do you know what the thymus gland is?”
Wolgast shook his head.
Sykes pointed at his chest, just above the breastbone. “Little thing in here, between the sternum and the trachea, about the size of an acorn. In most people, it’s atrophied completely by puberty, and you could go your whole life not knowing you had one, unless it was diseased. Nobody really knows what it does, or at least they didn’t, until they ran scans on these four patients. The thymus had somehow turned itself back on. More than back on: it had enlarged to three times its usual size. It looked like a malignancy but it wasn’t. And their immune systems had gone into overdrive. A hugely accelerated rate of cellular regeneration. And there were other benefits. Remember these were cancer patients, all over fifty. It was like they were teenagers again. Smell, hearing, vision, skin tone, lung volume, physical strength and endurance, even sexual function. One of the men actually grew back a full head of hair.”
“A virus did this?’
Sykes nodded. “Like I said, this is the layman’s version. But I’ve got people downstairs who think that’s exactly what happened. Some of them have degrees in subjects I can’t even spell. They talk to me like I’m a child, and they’re not wrong.”
“What happened to them? The four patients.”
Sykes leaned back in his chair, his face darkening a little.