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Onyx reviews: The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage is one of the most talked about, most anticipated novels of summer 2010. It was heavily publicized by the publisher, with blurbs from well known authors, ads in national newspapers and billboards, a 17-city author tour, book trailers, interactive web sites, iPhone apps and more. 

Does the book live up to the hype? Absolutely—with one caveat. The pre-launch publicity downplays the fact that this is the first installment of an anticipated trilogy that won't be complete for another four years at best. Readers with an aversion to cliffhangers beware. Not everything is neatly tied up at the end of this book's 750-plus pages. Readers may also be taken by surprise by some of the storytelling choices made by Justin Cronin, an award-winning professor of creative writing at Rice University. 

At first, The Passage seems like it will be a linear thriller cut from cloth similar to Stephen King's The Stand. It starts out depicting an epidemic that destroys most of humanity. The virus originates in the Bolivian jungle, and it is brought back to civilization—an Army research compound—by a military-funded scientific expedition.

The plan isn't to weaponize the virus, though. It is a defensive tool that has the potential to cure every disease known to mankind and heal injuries by stimulating the normally dormant thymus gland into overdrive. An army of soldiers who can heal overnight from battle injuries may be all that stands between America and anarchy. The war on terror has been raging for fifteen years with no end in sight, encroaching onto American soil, including attacks on shopping centers. Gasoline is nearly $15 a gallon and there are border checkpoints between states. Civil liberties are being trampled. New Orleans, hit by another massive hurricane, is now a toxic wasteland. The country is on the brink.

Agent Wolgast, an FBI agent with a knack for persuasion, travels the country convincing a dozen death row inmates (probably not an arbitrary number, calling to mind as it does the tribes of Israel and the number of disciples) to sign up for Project NOAH, a name inspired by the Biblical character's longevity. It's not a tough selll—the men are desperate and grasp at any excuse to avoid a rendezvous with the hangman.

Cronin devotes a lot of time to Wolgast's backstory, as well as that of Carter, one of the "volunteer" test subjects, a man who desperately wants to remember the details of the day he supposedly killed Rachel Wood, a woman who had shown him kindness. 

Wolgast is knocked off balance when he's sent to bring in a thirteenth test subject, a six-year-old girl named Amy who was abandoned in a convent by her prostitute mother. He lost his daughter to illness and his marriage broke up not long after, so it's a sensitive situation. He delivers Amy to the military research station in Telluride, where experiments on the twelve killers take an unexpected turn. The virus gives them superhuman powers. They glow in the dark, can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and have extrasensory powers. They also shun the daylight and suffer blood lust. They have only a single spot where they are vulnerable to a bullet, an axe or an arrow. However, they are fiendishly clever, and exploit human weaknesses to poke holes in the compound's defenses. The virus affects Amy differently. It enhances her ability to learn and makes her averse to the sunlight, but she isn't cursed with the insatiable hunger of the others. 

Instead of depicting the stepwise destruction of society, Cronin tacks in a different direction. The second section of the book is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, dealing with Wolgost and Amy's retreat from civilization once the agent realizes what is likely to happen after the test subjects get loose. Amy and Wolgost come to trust and love each other during the winter they spend at a lakeside camp in the Oregon mountains that Wolgost knew from his childhood. He hears rumors of what's happening in the rest of the world as the infection spreads during occasional forays to a nearby general store. 

This survival tale comes to an end with hints of cataclysmic events just beyond the mountains. The book makes another unexpected shift, leaping forward to the year 92 A.V (after virus) and First Colony, a FEMA compound in the San Jacinto Mountains in the breakaway nation of California. A group of survivors, the descendents of children evacuated from the major cities in the late stages of the "plague," have formed a new social order.

Cronin creates a fully realized post-apocalyptic civilization. The rules they've developed are focused on the security and propagation of the community. Some regulations seem arbitrary, and the punishments for breaching them unduly harsh, but they ultimately make sense. For example, radios are outlawed because they might draw undue attention to their group, attracting dangerous outsiders. This means that the colonists have no idea what's going on in the world outside their limited sphere of travel. For all they know, normalcy might have returned elsewhere. The plague might be under control.

Children are quarantined until the age of eight, when they are briefed about the reality of their circumstances and assigned to one of a few professions. Some people tend to the wind turbine farm several miles outside the walls, excursions that bring to mind the visit to the Forbidden City in Battle for the Planet of the Apes

This section of the novel also brings to mind The Omega Man and He Is Legend. During the daytime, the colonists tend to their crops and raid the nearby shopping centers for provisions, but once the sun goes down the colony goes into high alert. Bright lights come on around the walls to ward off the "virals" that lurk in the shadows and try to breach the city's defenses. It is natural to think of these these beasts as vampires because of their insatiable craving for blood. Some people call them "dracs." About 10% of the people they attack are "taken in" or converted. The rest are killed.  

However, the virals also share traits with George Romero's zombies. They aren't intelligent or suave like the twelve or like their namesake, Dracula. They're brutal, mindless killing machines. They instinctively return to the place they came from before they were taken, like dying people wanting to return home. They leap into the air and descend on their prey, giving rise to a new curse word: flyers. When someone from the colony is taken, a family member stands at the wall to serve the Mercy, waiting to kill the recently converted relative when he or she returns.

As this section opens, Peter Jaxon is waiting to kill his brother, who was lost during a recent battle with the virals. Peter's father was an eccentric who went on long walks outside the compound before vanishing several years earlier. Peter is a diffident young man who understands the need for the Colony's rigid regulations, but he's drifting. He let his younger brother take the leadership position he should have inherited, and allows potential relationships with women to remain unresolved. Though he becomes the book's protagonist, Peter is the most bland of Cronin's characters, which makes him more universal, easy for any reader to identify with.

Peter finds his purpose when he and a small group of survivors realize that the batteries charged by the wind turbines are weakening. Soon, they won't hold a charge and their main line of defense, the lights surrounding First Colony, will go out. They keep this information to themselves because they have no solution. Then, a glimmer of hope materializes—an approaching radio signal picked up on an illicit radio. The signal heralds the arrival of a surprising savior, a mute much older than she looks. Based on the information she brings, Peter leads his friends on an excursion that takes them from California to Colorado. On foot.

The book changes direction again, becoming a cross-country saga reminiscent of Robert McCammon's Swan Song. This small band of would-be heroes traverses a mad landscape, including a devastated, overrun Las Vegas. The group encounters other survivors, not all of them benign, and a seemingly endless supply of dracs. They face numerous harrowing ordeals. In one amusing scene, they are even provided with the opportunity to screen the classic Béla Lugosi film Dracula.

Some goals are achieved, some storylines resolved, some questions answered, but not all. One unanswered question is why Amy was special even before she became Patient Thirteen. Cronin also hints at an early link between Peter and Amy via a stuffed animal that was her constant companion before the outbreak—before Peter was even born.

For such a long novel, The Passage is a surprisingly fast read. Though it brings to mind just about every other post-apocalyptic novel ever written, it is not derivative. Cronin's style—his interest in characters and their relationships—puts the book in a class by itself. The only shame is that readers will now have to wait two more years for the next installment.


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