THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Where the wild things are

In Justin Cronin’s blockbuster hybrid novel, the thriller elements wrestle with the literary, while super vampires maul fleeing humans

By Ethan Gilsdorf
June 20, 2010

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Weighing in at 766 pages and 2 pounds 6 ounces, “The Passage’’ is designed to be big. Big plot, big themes, big sweep. And the author, Justin Cronin, landed himself a big advance. After a knock-down, drag-out bidding war, Ballantine paid about $3.75 million for the book plus two sequels in the pipeline. Director Ridley Scott’s production company ponied up $1.75 million for the film rights. “The Passage’’ has become one of those media machine-generated blockbusters, feeding upon the weight of everyone’s expectations. Like a small financial entity unto itself, it’s too big to fail.

Still, “The Passage’’ is a gamble. With this post-apocalyptic, doorstopper of a saga, the author enters a new universe. In his former life, the New England native wrote works of literary fiction, “Mary and O’Neil’’ and “The Summer Guest,’’ which won prizes like the Pen/Hemingway Award. They’re set on the planet Earth we know and love. No undead in sight.

“The Passage’’ is different. It began as a storytelling game with Cronin’s then 9-year-old daughter. She wanted to spin a yarn about “a girl who saves the world.’’ After he started writing, Cronin, an English professor at Rice University in Houston, sensed that, like the virus the plot hinges on, the project was changing him. He noted in one interview, “I knew by the time I’d finished this I would be a different person — and a different kind of writer.’’ He’d given birth to a monster.

And “The Passage’’ is a bastard beast, a literary-thriller hybrid both portentous and predictable. Think Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road’’ crossed with the movie “The Road Warrior,’’ with the psychological tonnage of John Fowles’s “The Magus,’’ and the “huh?’’ of “The Matrix.’’ Mix in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy of fellowships and quests and add Stephen King’s dark, virus-ridden vision in “The Stand.’’

Now comes the $5.5 million dollar question: Does Cronin pull it off?

First, know “The Passage’’ is no bedtime story. Suffice it to say, by the time we reach page 50, we’ve already been introduced to adultery, prostitution, and murder. The premise: A few, unspecified years in the future (where, thankfully, USA Today is still in print), a nasty virus unleashed in the Bolivian jungle gives its victims a kind of immortality. Naturally, this interests the US military, who could sure use this superpower in its endless fight against terrorists who strike at home and abroad.

So, a secret military project begins deep in the Colorado mountains. Those experiments go awry, and the 12 test subjects escape from their glass chambers — why does this always happen? — and begin their fearsome rampage across the nation. With every bite they spread the gift that keeps on giving. The victims become jacked-up killers themselves, glowing vampires on steroids known as “virals.’’

Before you know it, complex plotlines are bulldozed across the landscape and laid down like the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System — plotlines that are broad and clear and fast, and destined to run together. Cronin intercuts the stories of a death row inmate, a nun, a pair of FBI agents, and a desperate mother and her daughter named Amy. Familiar themes emerge: science and the military punished for their hubris; the man who turns on bureaucracy to do what’s right; the child prodigy whose secret powers might save us all. That’s just in part one. The story builds from there, following more than a dozen main characters and unfolding over decades.

Certainly Cronin has fun with his destroyed America, one in which Jenna Bush was governor of Texas, and, in an eerie parallel with today’s headlines, the oil industry is under federal protection. Later, some decades after the initial outbreak, we encounter a whole set of new characters, and they take us through the second half of “The Passage.’’ This ragtag colony survives in a Walden-like castle compound, fighting back the bloodthirsty devils. They also raid the ruined mall — REI, Footlocker, and the Gap — for supplies, stumble upon dusty relics like “Where the Wild Things Are’’ (get it?) and wonder whether anyone else has survived. “Grief was a place . . . where a person went alone,’’ Cronin writes. Life is “a series of mishaps and narrow escapes.’’ In these moments, “The Passage’’ surpasses genre fiction, and approaches existential meditation.

Cronin’s prose is thick and meaty and at times elegant. Texas is described as a “state-sized porkchop of misery’’; 9/11 is called “the money shot of the new millennium.’’ In another passage, Wolgast, the FBI agent with the heart of gold whose fate is tied to Amy’s, takes a nap, and enters “sleep’s antechamber, the place where dreams and memories mingled, telling their strange stories.’’ Indeed, much of “The Passage’’ takes place in the murky minds of its protagonists.

Cronin has a literary novelist’s eye for detail and local color, and an eagerness to create believable characters with feelings. However, this impulse collides with the necessities of the supernatural, sci-fi horror thriller. The collision is not always pretty.

For one thing, Cronin has a lot of ground to cover. That means passages of exposition, some of them lengthy and rammed down the throats of characters. An inventive mix of e-mails, diaries, and documents partially alleviates this need for our heroes to spout off too much. But just as often, the interior voice mumbo-jumbo — nightmares and telepathic messages — leaves the reader scratching her head.

The other trouble is emotional gravitas. Cronin’s roving narrator enters the heads of each character. They’re compelling folk, to be sure, desperate to hope, and afraid to love in the face of their bleak condition. But we’re asked to juggle the detailed back stories and desires of so many characters, it’s hard to know on whom to hang our heart strings. Thankfully, the connective tissue across space and time is Amy, the “Girl from Nowhere,’’ the one we meet on page one who we can guess has a role in the story’s conclusion.

Still, some readers deep into “The Passage’’ will be spellbound. They’ll want to know how it turns out. And they’ll also wonder who will play whom in the movie version. How the stunt people will stage the battles and chases. And how cool it will be for the set designers to build malls and casinos, then blow them up.

Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms,’’ can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

THE PASSAGE
By Justin Cronin
Ballantine, 766 pp., $26