By Justin Cronin, 2010
If you haven't heard about it yet, here's a refresher course: this book made the writer nearly four million in publisher money, and then it made him nearly two million in Ridley Scott's movie money. That's before the book was published. It isn't Justin Cronin's first book--he has two previous novels and one horribly received novella (which he wrote in his twenties, which is when you're supposed to write those kinds of things)--but it is the first thing he's done that's completely removed from his educational and professional background, which can be summed up by merely listing a bit of them: Iowa Writer's Workshop, Harvard, professor of English. Because: this book? This multimillion dollar book that clocks in just a shade below 800 pages and happens to be the first in a trilogy?
It's about psychic vampires who have rendered North America (and probably the world, although there's no confirmation of that theory to be found in this first volume) a post-apocalyptic death zone.
So, fuck yeah. From beneath the feet of Marilynne Robinson (current faculty member of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and writer of the fantastic Gilead and near-perfect Housekeeping, neither of which of feature vampires or rogue FBI agents) comes something that reads a bit like The Stand would read if somebody had stopped Stephen King from including all those made-up colloquialisms he always spackles his dialog with.
King isn't the last comparison that might cross your mind when you're reading The Passage, but the one that won't make much of an appearance is Twilight or True Blood: this isn't a book about the people who befriend the vampires, that little fantasy is dispensed with early on in the book when the closest thing to "a good one" that the book has rips one of our earliest heroes into multiple pieces after a particularly engaging (albeit stocked with cliches like "i'll be right behind you") chase sequence. The other thing you won't find much of is the word "vampire"--it's made clear early on, by one of the overachieving scientists responsible for the world's condition, that the word is in the verboten category. And for the most part, so are all the stock vampire truisms--sunlight remains a problem, but killing them is more a question of weaponry and speed, neither of which our eventual protagonists have in great abundance. Garlic just turns them on.
For the most part--and yes, this is one of those rare attempts at Spoiler Freedom--the book is set after the world has collapsed, almost a century after mankind's numbers have dwindled to tiny, walled in communes rife with possible incest and a knowledge of history dependent on the memories of the old and senile. Cronin's Crichton-y efforts at the beginning of the story--which focus on the days and actions that preceded the current status quo--are rife with the sorts of things that always populate these kinds of novels, crash-course biographies and chainmail-fisted attempts to inspire a reader's immersion. Maybe it's due to his serious American fiction background, but most of it actually works--a beaten, impoverished white trash wife, an FBI agent trying to stem the moral collapse his infant daughter's death has brought about, the decaying sanity of a "recovered" child molester--even when the book's blurb leaves no question of whether these people will survive past the opening pages, thus rendering this first section a laundry list of "people who aren't going to make it".
Of course, it's when the book opens to its primary setting of a world after that Cronin starts to show off the second part of his so-fetching-it-must-be-public-relations bio takes hold. Supposedly, Cronin came up with a good bit of what he was going to write during a game he and his daughter played during their daily walks to school; a game where they were making up a story. True or false, it's not hard to see what he means--The Passage, like almost all post-apocalyptic fantasy, fits perfectly with what one might refer to as "daydream" fiction, the types of stories we tell ourselves about what we would do if we won the lottery tomorrow, or if we were forced to scavenge for food at the cheap bodega we usually just buy cigarettes at. From here, the book follows some predictable twists and turns, but it's ultimately successful: a smart, compelling thriller that's biggest flaw might be the mercenary techniques that Cronin overuses to give each of the book's "Parts" a cliffhanger to rest upon. (It's wholly possible that some people might be reading this book slowly, but god knows why--if ever there was a genre that suffers from multiple stops and starts, it's thrillers-in-prose.) By the end of the book, when Cronin sandwiches two fake-out gotchas right next to one another, even the most forgiving reader will be irritated by the gears of manipulation left out so plainly. (And they'll feel an even deeper level of irritation when they read the book's last sentence and remember how far away 2012--when the second book will "hopefully" drop--really is.)
The Passage isn't about to change the world, and it isn't Twilight for grown-ups. In time, it may be as dated as the good versus evil portions of The Stand are now, hell, it may be a stupid book already. But it doesn't feel like one. It feels like the sort of book that Red Dragon or the Day of the Jackal still are, the sort of airport-friendly don't-put-that-fucker down experience that books supposedly don't provide that often. It's got some work to do if it's not going to turn into a super-powered magic fight, and the violence could use some greasier descriptions to better marry it to Cronin's blunt surprise delivery, but for what it is--a Stephen King post-apoc thriller with a Michael Crichton meets Andre Dubus opener--it's a hell of a good time.
-Tucker Stone stayed up until 4 two nights in a row to prove to his wife he could read this fucker in less than 30 hours, 2010