Friday, June 25, 2010

We Know Them in the Night

I’ve never been a fan of vampire novels: Frankenstein was always my choice over Dracula, and the only twilight I can stomach comes every evening. But reading some complimentary reviews of Justin Cronin’ The Passage (Ballantine) finally made me decide to give that novel a nibble.

“Cronin is a remarkable storyteller ..., whose gorgeous writing brings depth and vitality to this ambitious epic about a virus that nearly destroys the world, and a 6-year-old girl who holds the key to bringing it back,” writes’s Daphne Durham. “The Passage takes readers on a journey from the early days of the virus to the aftermath of the destruction, where packs of hungry infected scour the razed, charred cities looking for food, and the survivors eke out a bleak, brutal existence shadowed by fear.”

Adds Dan Chaon, author of the wonderful Await Your Reply: “There is a particular kind of reading experience--the feeling you get when you can’t wait to find out what happens next. ... About three-quarters of the way through The Passage, I found myself in the grip of that peculiar and intense readerly emotion ...”

Not that Cronin ever calls his infected bloodsuckers vampires. Instead, they are “sticks,” “jumps,” “virals,” “smokes,” and--after they finally die--“slims,” because of what becomes of their bodies.

The author’s particular gift for creating believable, touching characters--from criminals on death row to a heroic FBI agent named Brad Wolgast, and especially Amy, the 6-year-old world savior--are what makes this book so memorable.

After Wolgast is recruited by General Sykes, a high-ranking Defense Department officer, to what is being called Project NOAH, “they shook, and Sykes walked him to the door. ... ‘One last question,’ Wolgast asked. ‘Why NOAH? What’s it stand for?’” There is also another military man in the room, Richards--not in uniform.
Sykes glanced quickly at Richards. In that moment, Wolgast felt the balance of power shifting in the room; Sykes might have been technically in charge, but in some way, Wolgast felt certain, he also reported to Richards, who was probably the link between the military and whoever was really running the show: USAMRIID, Homeland, maybe NSA.

Sykes turned back to Wolgast. “'It doesn’t stand for anything. Let’s put it this way. You ever read the Bible?”

“Some.” Wolgast looked at the both of them. “When I was a kid. My mother was a Methodist.”

Sykes allowed himself a second, final smile. “Go look it up. The story of Noah and the ark. See how long he lived. That’s all I’ll say.”

That night, back in his Denver apartment, Wolgast did as Sykes had said. He didn’t own a Bible, probably hadn’t laid eyes on one since his wedding day. But he found a concordance online. “And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.”
But if there is one scene which sums up the beauty and the emotional power of Cronin’s creation, it is the one in which an African nun named Lacey takes Amy to the zoo. All the animals react strongly to the girl’s presence, especially the bears.
“They know,” Amy said, her hands still pressed to the glass.

“What do the bears know?”

The girl raised her face. Lacey was stunned; never had she seen such sadness in a child’s expression. such knowing grief. And yet, as she searched Amy’s eyes, she saw no fear. Whatever Amy had learned, she had accepted it.

“What I am,” she said.
If you find yourself as mesmerized as I was when I finished The Passage’s nearly 800 pages, you’ll be glad to know that it’s the first book in a three-part series.

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