Justin Cronin,
The Passage
(Ballantine, 2010)

Make no mistake, this engrossing, stirring and incredibly creative exercise is a pop-cultural landmark. Justin Cronin has created a world both terrifying because of the danger and compelling because you meet people you want to join on the ramparts. You want to share the book with others, but you will not give it away because you will want very much to read it a second time some day.

The Passage begins a few years into the future (Jenna Bush is governor of Texas, tee hee) with reports from an expedition in South America to find the source of a virus that may carry important properties for humans. The expedition is a disaster, but somehow a sample of the virus is brought back. Twelve death-row inmates are told they can escape the noose if they participate in virus testing. Also, a little orphan girl named Amy is more or less appropriated for the testing. They all get the virus and -- except for Amy, whose reaction is different, which becomes the most important plot point in the book -- become bloodthirsty monsters and, of course, escape. They create thousands more. Mankind appears doomed as cities are overrun with these very-hard-to-kill creatures.

Cut forward 92 years. Here, about one-third into the book, the real meat of our story begins as we join about 100 human survivors living in First Colony, a barricaded enclave in California's San Jacinto mountains. The book slows a bit, but the momentum rebuilds as we get to know these people and the society they have created. Their days are spent roaming the countryside, letting their sheep and horses graze and occasionally foraging in the ruins of a shopping mall. Nights are spent behind walls where huge lights keep the light-phobic "virals" at bay.

These descendants of the original survivors are a tight-knit group living in a highly structured society. At first, an occasional straggler would show up at their gate. But it's been ages since that happened and they have no idea if other survivors exist. Three key characters emerge -- the soulful leader Peter, the engineer Michael and the warrior Alicia. It's not giving much away to say that eventually a journey is begun that is as epic as The Lord of the Rings.

Cronin describes the customs and folkways of life inside First Colony in absorbing detail. Children are raised in quarantine until age 8 to keep from them the true nature of their plight until they can handle it. They speak conversational English, which would seem unlikely because some sort of pidgin English would probably have emerged. But Cronin tosses in some new vocabulary -- pants are gaps, skeletons are slims -- especially the word "flyers" (one of their names for the virals), which is an expletive they use much the same way we say "Jesus," as in, "Flyers, that was a close one!" Sex is fairly casual among the young, but eventually they "pair off." Books and music are both available, but most of them pass the time playing cards and drinking "shine." There are no guns (though that changes) and their chief weapons against the virals are crossbows.

Cronin makes it clear that the survival of the human species will also mean the survival not only of things like of love, heroism, charity and other noble virtues, but also stupidity, cowardice, jealousy, anger and the ignoble virtues. It's all human, part and parcel.

They have a constitution they call One Law. The punishment for the most serious infractions (nearly always about about risking virals inside) is to be banished from the colony, a virtual death sentence. Or, the virals may "turn" the victim. In such cases, the new viral, for reasons not really understood, returns to the colony to plead for another chance. The victim's closest friend or relative must stand duty on the wall to kill the returnee. They call this "the Mercy."

They are resigned to the fact this is the only life they will have. Then, one day, to their astonishment, someone shows up at their gate. And everything is about to change.

The last third of the book is as thrilling a reading experience I've had in a long time. Near the end, it is a heart-breaking experience to realize your time among these extraordinary people is finite. The cliffhanger ending makes it clear a sequel is coming (two, actually). But the next one is not due for two more years. We must resign ourselves to the fact that this is the life we must live.

By the way, this is going to be one hell of a movie. A scene near the end involving a high-speed escape aboard an armored train is almost unbearably thrilling and cinematic. Ridley Scott's shop has bought the film rights for $1.75 million.

book review by
Dave Sturm

11 December 2010

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