The Passage: Dronely the Lonely, a Review
WARNING: BIG SPOILER ALERT–GO NO FURTHER IF YOU PLAN TO READ THE PASSAGE.
Okay you’ve been warned about THE PASSAGE. So trudge along with me.
The Passage is a novel written by Justin Cronin, a professor of English at Rice University. Random House published The Passage in 2010. Before I began to read The Passage, I read the back page, a list of acknowledgements. This list contained many famous names like Ridley Scott, higher ups at Random House, Creative Artists Agency, Orion, and Ballatine. In other words, he knows people. In addition, Cronin has written some award winning material and earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a great place to network. Plus, Justin Cronin is cute. All of those Rice girls likely agree.
Here’s an overview of The Passage. As I read the last page, here are my reasons for wanting to throw it against a wall.
Cronin’s The Passage is 766 pages. The first 208 pages are really, really good, almost brilliant. The novel begins with the plight of a five year-old girl Amy, when Amy’s friendless single mother abandons her at a convent. We meet a nun named Lacey, a survivor of civil war in Sierra Leone. Hoping to care for Amy and keep her at the convent, Lacey tells little white lies.
Then the narrative changes to first person in emails that detail research that is going on in the Amazon jungle.
They discover a batman statue in the jungle. I don’t mean the super hero. This thing sports fangs and attitude. The US military is involved. In a horror novel, that’s never good. The scientists aim to conquer death. One scientist, Lear, is grieving the death of his wife. While in the jungle, several scientists are killed and eaten by vampire bats. We’re left wondering what secret the scientists discovered before they became bat food.
Now, we’re back at secret research facility. The military, with Lear’s help, experiments on a dozen condemned murderers.
Plagued seeping creeping dreams, the sex-offender personnel record vitals and clean up the guano. The new “bat men” hang upside down in their cells! This part of The Passage rivals the vampire dreams of Salem’s Lot. It’s very scary.
When two FBI agents recruit a death row inmate, Cronin’s skill really shines.
We meet Carter, a bewildered little man on death row for accidentally killing his benefactress. His victim, a housewife, rescued him from under a bridge and gave him work, a home and dignity. Carter, a gentle soul, accepts his fate. Wolfgast, one of the FBI men, grieves the death of his infant daughter. Wolfgast reluctantly recruits Carter. He knows the man is not a killer. Carter’s journey to the research facility is Cronin at his best. We see Carter’s enjoyment. He is amazed at the America that his poverty and friendlessness denied him.
When Lear wants to test the serum on a child Wolfgast and Doyle, his partner attempt to find one who won’t be missed.
That child is Amy. When Lacey takes Amy to the zoo, the little girl makes the TV news. All the animals freak out and try to follow the little girl. Amy explains that “They know what I am.” Okay, except that this whole segment is never revisited. We never find out what about Amy made the animals crazy. The zoo scene happens way before the events that led to Amy’s weird behavior. You assume that the zoo incident, along with Lacey’s prescience, will be given an explanation. Not.
Wolfgast tries to rescue Amy but trigger-happy government guy Richards stops him. Richards is the poster child for overkill.
The guy kills all the nuns for pete’s sake! At this point, the writing has been so good so far that you forgive the cartoon excess. The best two hundred pages ends with Wolfgast rescuing Amy after she’s been given a giant dose of refined bat juice. Then the convict batmen get free and kill everyone. Lacy wasn’t home when Richards killed the other nuns. Alive and determined, Lacey finds Amy. We leave Lacey the nun as she distracts the batmen (later called virals) allowing Amy and Wolfgast to get away. The last page of these 208 ends with Amy being alone with no one to protect her.
The rest of the book, all remaining 548 pages, begins almost one hundred years after the virals have pretty much killed the world.
It centers on the “Colony” a small group of survivors located in California. Exposition is in the form of a document presented at a “World Conference” in “1015 av.” Okay, so we know that there’s a world and conferences and that mankind as a global civilization ultimately survives. Now back to the document, a first person account written by Ida, a woman who was the oldest person at the “Colony’. Think The Stand’s “Mother Abigail.”
Ida makes awful tea and blurts out remarks like she knows what’s going to happen. She doesn’t!
The Colony survives by vigilance and keeping the lights on at night to keep out the virals. The adults protect the “Littles” (as in Lord of the Flies “little-uns”) who stay segregated in a schoolhouse. Unfortunately, the batteries are dying. In desperation, the “Watchers” turn on the forbidden radio, hoping to signal for help. It comes in the form of a teenage girl. After a hundred years, Amy has managed to hit puberty. She is also mute.
I could name some of the zillion characters who continue the story. The novel jumps from one character to the other in a third person narrative.
Not one character pops out. Cronin doesn’t give enough weight to any of them to make us care. I kept waiting for the writing to get better, to get anywhere near the caliber of the first section. There’s a series of forays, attacks, discoveries. We finally learn that all forty something million virals are telepathically connected to one or the other of the original twelve convicts. Like giant bee colonies, each convict is a queen bat-bee. If you can kill one of the originals, then those connected will remember who they are. Then they’ll wait until the sun comes up. These queenless virals will burn. And they fly to that great hive in the sky. Right.
What really frosts my shorts is that Cronin leaves us hanging. He doesn’t tell us how or when the world is saved.
In fact, the last “document” presented at the “World Conference” reveals the assumed death of one of the major characters. We don’t know for sure. Cronin has a habit of killing someone off at the end of a segment. The next chapter informs us that they were rescued by some fluke. This is lazy writing. Cronin knows better and we the readers deserve better. The ending was very frustrating and I felt had.
Though much of it is engrossing, I can’t recommend The Passage.
I suspect others might disagree, I found much to like and a lot that was frustrating.