Saturday, May 21, 2011

Dark Passages: The Passage

For some reason, I've always been deeply resistant to hoopla.  In my senior yearbook, Public Enemy's "Don't Believe the Hype" is listed as my favorite song.  I never watched "The Sopranos" at first because I figured anything that acclaimed had to be overrated.  Perhaps that is also why I went almost a whole year before delving into Justin Cronin's ballyhooed novel The Passage (which Stephen King actually called in to fawn over while Cronin was being interviewed on Good Morning America).  It took me only a few pages, though, to realize what an utter fool I had been for waiting so long.

The book is phenomenal; even as I compulsively turned its pages, I found myself wishing that it would never end.  It reads like an incredible mix of The Stand and The Road, Salem's Lot and I Am Legend (and even The Lord of the Rings--surely it's no coincidence that one of the main characters is named "Peter Jaxon").  A quintessential epic, The Passage melds genres (science fiction, dark fantasy, the western), uses the entire country as its canvas, and takes the human condition as its ultimate subject.  The characters are so vividly rendered, their lives--and deaths--choke emotion from the reader (Cronin's prose is so good, it hurts).  Quite simply, this is one of the most masterful works of fiction I have ever read.

In keeping with a novel of such enormous stature, today's edition of Dark Passages delivers two separate excerpts.  The first showcases Cronin's ability to evoke the desolation of the post-apocalyptic landscape, while the second demonstrates that the author is just as adept at scripting scenes of action-packed, blood-chilling horror:

They marched.
The mountains fell away behind them; by half-day, they were deep in the open desert.  The roadway was little more than suggestion, but they could still follow its course, tracing the bulge it made in the hardpan, through a landscape of scattered boulders and strange, stunted trees, beneath a boiling sun and a limitless sky bleached of all color.  The breeze hadn't so much died as collapsed; the air was so motionless it seemed to hum, the heat vibrating around them like an insect's wings.  Everything in the landscape looked both close and far away, the sense of perspective distorted by the immeasurable horizon.  How easy it would be, Peter thought, to get turned around in such a place, to wander aimlessly until darkness fell.  Past the town of Mojave Junction--no town at all, just a few empty foundations and a name on the map--they crested a small rise to discover a long line of abandoned vehicles, two abreast, facing the direction they had come.  Most were passenger cars but there were some trucks as well, their rusted, sand-scoured chassis sunk in the drifting sand.  It felt as if they'd stumbled on an open grave, a grave of machines.  Many of the roofs had been peeled away, the doors torn off their hinges.  The interiors looked melted; if there had once been bodies inside, they were long gone, scattered to the desert winds.  Here and there in the undifferentiated debris, Peter detected a recognizable item of human scale: a pair of eyeglasses, an open suitcase, a child's plastic doll.  They passed in silence, not daring to speak.  Peter counted over a thousand vehicles before they ended in a final plume of wreckage, the indifferent desert sands resuming.   (509)


"Stop her!" someone yelled.  "Stop that woman!"
As Mausami felt the shot entering her upper thigh--a strangely trivial pain, like the sting of a bee--she realized she'd done it.  The flames were dying, guttering around the ring.  The crowd was suddenly backing away from the wires, everyone yelling, chaos erupting.  The viral had broken away from the last of the cattle, drawing itself erect--all throbbing light and eyes and claws and teeth, its smooth face and long neck and massive chest bibbed in blood.  Its body looked swollen, like a tick's.  It stood at least three meters, maybe more.  With a flick of its head it found Finn with its eyes, head cocking to the side, body tensing as it took aim, preparing to spring, and then it did; it seemed to cross the air between them at the speed of thought, invisible as a bullet was invisible, arriving all at once where Finn lay helpless.  What happened next Mausami did not see clearly and was glad she did not, it was so fast and terrible, like the cattle but vastly worse, because it was a man.  A splash of blood like something bursting, and part of Finn went one way, and part of him another.   (591)

Work Cited

Cronin, Justin.  The Passage.  New York: Ballantine Books, 2010.

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