By Edward Nawotka
Houston, we have an apocalypse…
It starts when a Houston housewife in tennis whites pulls over her gleaming black Denali to give a homeless man $20. That innocent encounter ends luridly, like so many of the true-crime stories that come from the nation’s fourth-largest city, with the woman floating dead in her pool and the man, named Carter, sitting on death row in Huntsville.
Fast forward to 2016, when our story begins proper, and things are familiar but different: Jenna Bush is governor, gasoline is $13 a gallon, and New Orleans, destroyed by Hurricane Vanessa, has been cordoned and redubbed the Federal Industrial District of New Orleans. It’s a giant petrochemical factory surrounded by flooded, polluted flatlands. The country is still in the midst of the “War on Terr-rah” and has suffered several new attacks, including “The Mall of America Massacre,” in which 300 holiday shoppers were slain by Iranian jihadists.
A pair of FBI agents, Wolgast and Doyle, have given Carter an offer he can’t refuse: a pardon in exchange for his agreement to become the 12th candidate in a special weapons program being developed in a secret facility in Colorado. The program’s goal is to produce a breed of vampiric super-soldiers, a new Manhattan Project, that promises to usher in an era of Pax Americana. Meanwhile, in Memphis, a refugee nun from Sierra Leone takes a 6-year-old girl named Amy to the zoo, where the animals react as if Amy is speaking to them. Wolgast and Doyle are dispatched to pick up the girl, who is another candidate for the program.
Naturally, this being a government project and all, things don’t quite go as planned.
Two years later, much of the world is dead. Or undead, as the case may be. Ninety years after that, humanity is represented by a few lone survivors, who must all go on an epic journey to save the world.
That’s all that should really be said. To give much more away would ruin much of what is going to be one of the singular beach-reading pleasures of the next several years. This fat, 700-page book combines some of the best elements of some of your favorite books and movies, from the Bible, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Stephen King’s The Stand to 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and Children of Men.
There’s even something of Lonesome Dove in it. The early settings are in Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado, and it eventually settles in Oregon and California. This is a Western through and through – animal husbandry is an important element, for instance.
That its author, Justin Cronin, holds the same teaching position at Rice University in Houston that McMurtry once held isn’t an accident. While he doesn’t have a Pulitzer Prize, he does have a PEN/Hemingway award for his debut book of short stories, Mary and O’Neil, in 2001.
You may be thinking, “Gah! Not another vampire book.” And you may have heard that Cronin was paid around $4 million for the book and two more to follow -– The Passage is the first of a trilogy –- and that Fox 2000 and Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions paid an additional $1.75 million for the movie rights. Indeed, The Passage is great entertainment.
Techies will love the technical and procedural details Cronin offers about this new dystopian civilization’s workings; parents will be drawn in by the various domestic dramas and the “child-in-peril storyline.” What’s more, it is refreshingly free of the schlocky, fetishistic sexualization of vampires that mars several other popular works in the genre. (Guilty: Anne Rice. Guilty: Stephenie Meyer.)
The Passage is the type of big, engrossing read that will have you leaving the lights on late into the night for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that light keeps vampires away.
If the book has one fault, it’s that the characters, fighting for their lives in this quasi-militaristic world, tend to blend together and remain somewhat faceless before dying and being quickly replaced with others, like soldiers in a war.
As for Houston, well, when the end comes, the city gets the last laugh. The thinly veiled Joel Osteen stand- in, “Houston Mayor Barry Wooten, best-selling author and former head of Holy Splendour Bible Church, the nation’s largest,” declares the city “a Gateway to Heaven” and urges residents and refugees from elsewhere in the state to gather at Houston’s Reliant Stadium to prepare for “our ascension to the throne of the Lord, not as monsters but as men and women of God.”
Ha! Take that world!