I don't think I've ever had a book recommended to me more times than this one. Justin Cronin used to teach at Colgate, and all my friends at the conference there are friends of his, and this year The Passage was all anybody talked about. They all know I've got a thing for sci-fi and post-apocalypse stuff, so the conversations generally went like this:
Them: "You gotta read Justin's book!!!"
Me: "But isn't it about...vampires?"
Them: "They're not regular vampires."
Well, I read it. And I need to say right off the bat that I almost didn't make it through the first 25 pages, which are about a hooker with a heart of gold who gets horribly victimized by an evil college student. Ah, class war! The adorable, stuffed-animal clutching Innocent Beautiful Daughter didn't help matters, nor did the friendly nun into whose arms she flees.
But if this sounds awful to you, bear with it. The Passage is kind of awesome, and it's true what they say--they're not regular vampires.
I have long looked for a book that I could enjoy the way I enjoyed The Stand at 15: with total absorption and an utter lack of critical judgement. The Stand itself certainly isn't that book; I gave it another try a few years ago, and couldn't make it past the Improbably Old Magical Black Lady. And even though Cronin manages to employ not one, but two Improbably Old Magical Black Ladies in this novel, this is exactly the book I wanted. With Rhian and the kids out of town for the weekend, I set myself up on the sofa and didn't move until all the coffee and bourbon were gone.
The story, as I'm sure you know, is that military scientists inadvertently create bloodthirsty, and apparently immortal, monsters which are let loose upon the land. Flash forward a century: humanity is fucked, and the last few people left alive are trying to survive. Some intrepid adventurers set off on a road trip through the terrible hinterlands, in an effort to...well, it's never really clear what they're trying to achieve. But no matter. What happens to them is a total delight.
Cronin's former reputation is as a writer of literary short stories, but the weird thing here is that the most literary sections are the least successful. He relies far too heavily on characters' past suffering as a motivation for their present actions. Rape, abuse, murder, orphanhood--everyone is driven by wrongs that have been done to them. None of it is convincing, or necessary. The book could lose 150 pages, easy.
But oh boy, the other 650 really fly. Cronin has found his calling as a writer of popular fiction--in scenes of suspense and action, he is right on the money, and he is quite good at showing character in there here and now, without explanations. The monsters are really spectacular, too--scary, but weirdly sympathetic. Our innocent little girl from the first section has come back, see--she got the vampire virus, but it has made her immortal without turning her monstrous, and she can talk to the vampires with her mind. She knows who they used to be, and what it feels like to be them. With this device, Cronin manages to explore what it means to be human, what it means to survive, and in so doing trumps The Stand, with its good v. evil nuclear showdown. There's no evil in The Passage, only human error and human striving. There are even a couple of pretty good love stories, including a moment so heartbreaking I actually screamed. (He makes up for it later, don't worry.)
It bugged me a bit that the book basically starts over on page 210, by which time everyone you have met and gotten invested in is dead. And the middle section starts slowly. But stick to it, this is the real story, the one we will probably still be reading through the two announced sequels.
Yeah, sequels--the ending promises much, much more of the same. I have to confess, I am doubtful. Much of the fun here is the fun of discovery--having mysteries solved, being shown amazing things. The sequels? Well, one of the characters actually asks about this, in the penultimate chapter: "Now what?" she says. The reply is ominous. "Now we go to war."
Oh. My fear, of course, is that we are heading for season 3 of Lost: no more smoke monster, lots of torture. Time will tell if Cronin can avoid this trap. I'm guardedly optimistic, though. He sure knows how to show a guy a fun weekend--let's see how he does with a long-term relationship.