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The Passage: A Novel

The Passage - Justin Cronin

Later, Keith Olbermann’s words, “WORST PERSON IN THE WO-O-R-R-L-L-D!!!” would echo in my head.

The other morning, my daughter called, crying, and said, “I just did something terrible.”

I froze. As a parent, these words could mean anything. I waited.

“I hit a car. I was trying to move over because the street was narrow. I hit someone’s mirror. I panicked. I just took off. I’m late for work already. They’ll fire me if I’m late. I know I damaged the mirror. I feel awful.” This was all delivered in pieces, as she was weeping by now.

During this, I go into parental stream of consciousness: "Thank God. No one’s hurt. She’s not hurt. She left the scene. What does that mean? What do I do? What do I do? Trouble? Fines? Tickets? Jail? Oh my God. Money. Trouble, Money, money, money. Trouble, trouble, trouble.... ...Then, the devil’s words: Did anyone see you?

But that’s not what I said. I heard myself say, “Can you go back and leave a note on the windshield?”

More wailing, “Noooo. I’m late now. They’ll fire me. I know it.”

“All right. Okay. You have to report this. I’ll find out what you need to do. It’s okay. Go to work. It’ll be okay.”

Of course, I had no idea if it would be all right. I’m in Wisconsin; she’s in Minneapolis, and I started to make phone calls. The first officer was a huge help. He said he didn’t know what the rules were, but she’d LEFT THE SCENE OF AN ACCIDENT. I said she panicked, she feels terrible, she’s sobbing. He said, “It doesn’t matter whether she's crying, laughing, smiling. She LEFT THE SCENE OF AN ACCIDENT. That’s a crime.” My heart was pounding, and I wanted to say, “Look you Neanderthal fuck. She killed a mirror. Could you be human for a moment?”

An hour or so later, I finally reached the right people, and the sergeant assured me she was not in trouble, took my name, number and hers, and said she should report it as soon as possible.

…Situation handled, I suppose. But I kept thinking of my first thought, and what I almost said, Did anyone see you? Epic fail.

I’m drawn to apocalyptic fiction, and one of the reasons why is that characters are often tested, and The Passage is no exception. Faced with temptation or in the clutch of terror, characters succeed or fail. While the book has compelling moments, too often Cronin starts to develop a character but never really completes the task. With such a large array of characters, this needs to be done. You want to empathize with the characters, and they need to be distinct enough so that you can keep them all straight.

One problem – and this may sound minor – but it drove me crazy, was Cronin’s inability to handle dialogue. With the exception of the soldiers, who spoke in an exaggerated military fashion, many of the characters sounded the same. Also, they seemed to have one expletive: flyers, which referred to something horrible in their midst. Accordingly, most of the characters, when excited, would begin a sentence by saying, “Flyers, what will we do?” or “Flyers, did you see anything?” It was absurd.

Picture, for example, something horrible in our lives. Sarah Palin, for example, and then picture her being able to survive, as she is, for decades.


Would we all suddenly start using “Palins” as our only expletive, and then placing this word only at the beginning of a sentence? “Palins, hot enough for you?” or “Palins, we should get moving!”

No, for starters, though Palin has been on the international scene just shy of two years, we’ve been pretty creative in coming up with variations on her name:
~ Caribou Barbie
~Failin’ Palin
~the Thrilla from Wasilla
~Palin bailin’
~Bible Spice
~Deranged asshat (…sorry, that’s just me)

Imagine the variations we’d conjure up after decades.

Just why Cronin thought having most of his characters use this one expletive (flyers) baffled me, but I also started to wince every time someone used it.

I wanted to like this book. I’m a sucker for apocalyptic books where science-screws-up-big-time, starting with books as intellectually thoughtful as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein right down to Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. And, the book gets off to a good start. The first third of the book is quite good—the plot moves forward, and characters are developed.

Then, you reach Part III, which begins with a long military report that sucks out whatever momentum the book had attained. And Cronin does this sort of thing far too often. He’ll get the plot moving and then deaden it by letting a military report or pages and pages of someone’s diary (in italics! I hate fucking italics!) stand in for the plot he should have developed. This is poor writing, poor pacing, and piss-poor editing. For a couple hundred pages, the book crawls. It gets into gear in spurts, which are again deadened with dull reports or italicized diaries.

Cronin’s book, which had promise, lacks the rich characterization needed for such a long book, fails to sustain momentum, and has moments – particularly at the beginning of new sections - of horribly overwritten passages, such as this sentence fairly early in the book, which introduces Chapter Fifteen:
”When all time ended, and the world had lost its memory, and the man that he was had receded from view like a ship sailing away, rounding the blade of the earth with his old life locked in its hold; when the gyring stars gazed down upon nothing…”

This sentence, already painful, continues for another 37 words.

Worst book in the world? Not at all. Cronin has talent, which he needs to develop, and—most of all—he needs to learn how to pace a novel, and not cheat by having climactic scenes told in the form of dry reports or diary entries.