Justin Cronin is that rare creature - - the author of obscure literary novels who morphs into a blockbuster commercial writer without losing his soul.
His 766-page, post-apocalyptic vampire thriller, “The Passage,” is the first in a trilogy that sold for $3.75 million, plus $1.75 million for movie rights, according to Publishers Weekly. It’s being launched with a 250,000-copy first printing and a jacket blurb from Stephen King saying “Read this book and the ordinary world disappears.”
For once, the hype is justified. Cronin has imagined a frighteningly believable future in which the human race has been nearly wiped out by “virals,” super-strong mutants who only come out at night and live on the flesh of humans and other large mammals.
The book begins in a plausible near-future in which Jenna Bush is governor of Texas and the U.S. is (still) fighting an endless war. When a Harvard University biologist discovers a virus in the Bolivian jungle that seems to confer immortality and tremendous strength on those who catch it, the military takes over his project in hopes of developing a human weapon of mass destruction.
At a leisurely pace, we’re introduced to Brad Wolgast, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation assigned to convince a dozen death-row inmates to sign up as human guinea pigs for the virus experiment; Anthony Carter, a formerly homeless man who never meant to kill the woman who helped him find work; Sister Lacey Antoinette Kudoto, a nun from Sierra Leone who has found shelter from her violent past in a Tennessee convent; and Amy Bellafonte, a 6-year-old girl who will become the only person who can save the world.
Cronin’s psychological insight and detailed writing style make these characters far fuller than genre fiction needs them to be. We feel Wolgast’s pain as he remembers his baby daughter’s death and the end of his marriage; a phone call to his newly remarried ex-wife is a masterpiece of repressed anguish. The chapters about Amy’s teenage mother struggling to support her daughter could be a short story on their own.
Tension builds as all these characters come together at a secret military base where -- don’t worry, it’s not a surprise - - the 12 deliberately infected murderers escape from their cages and the entire world changes. The virals infect every tenth victim instead of killing them, and soon there are more mutants than humans.
It comes as a shock when 264 pages into the book Cronin jumps to the year 92 A.V. (“after virus,” I presume) and we’re plunged into the First Colony, a California mountain fortress ringed with bright lights to keep the nocturnal virals away. The Colony’s 100-odd residents, descended from children sent West in 2 A.V. to escape the horror, live by a rigid set of rules intended to keep them alive. They may be the only humans left on Earth.
The feel of the book completely changes here. Instead of delivering deep insights into a few characters, Cronin quickly introduces an entire community. It takes some time to get oriented, and the book does bog down for a while, but in a 766- page novel there’s room for a little boredom.
That’s part of the pleasure of “The Passage,” in fact -- Cronin creates such a complete world that everything is in there. Bravery, fear and adventure, of course, but also everyday things like good food, the smell of babies and the sight of a starry sky. Even boredom has its place.
Some of the residents of the Colony realize that the lights won’t last forever. When Amy shows up at their camp, a seemingly ageless little girl, a few of them set out into the unknown, trying to solve the mystery of the girl and find a better life (or at least a way to save the one they know).
“The Passage” is the perfect summer read, the kind that obliterates life outside its pages. Hey, Stephen King was right! By the time I reached the final cliffhanger, I could have gone on for another 700 pages. But I’ll have to wait. The next volume in the trilogy is scheduled to appear in 2012.
(Laurie Muchnick is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Laurie Muchnick in New York at email@example.com.