'The Passage,' by Justin Cronin

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THE PASSAGE, by Justin Cronin. Ballantine, 766 pp., $27.

Maybe the best thing about "The Passage," Justin Cronin's doorstop of a dystopian vampire novel, is the degree to which it improves over its 766 pages. Although Cronin, until now a literary novelist (his resume includes the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award), is a decent stylist, it takes him the length of the book to learn how to craft a real page-turner. But if you're willing to stick with it, "The Passage" is an agreeable thrill ride, especially after the story finally kicks into gear on page 247.

"The Passage" seems at first to be the story of Amy Harper Bellafonte, a girl who becomes the subject of a terrible military experiment to prolong life and increase physical stamina and strength. Amy is a little unknowable, though, so Cronin lets her friends tell her story, chiefly depressed FBI agent Brad Wolgast in the book's shaky first section and six main survivors of the bloodsucking apocalypse in the rest of the novel, which leaps forward nearly 100 years.

The apocalypse in question is brought about because the life-prolonging experiment, of course, goes horribly awry. In the world of "The Passage," vampires are the victims of a virus whose symptoms include superhuman strength and speed, zombification of personality, dislike of sunlight and a major jones for vein-fresh plasma. A heartbroken widowed scientist named Jonas Lear decides that he'd like to tame this virus (which exists only in remote South American jungles at the novel's opening) and use it to better mankind. When the perfected form of the virus (which confers all the benefits of vampirization and none of the drawbacks) is finally administered to Amy, the cat is well and truly out of the bag.

It's hard to shake the feeling that the whole book would benefit from Cronin's lopping off about 100 pages. The writer is a big fan of close calls, and after the third or fourth time our heroes just barely avoid some terrible pitfall that has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the novel, we start to feel jerked around. Have the basic decency to cut a character's fingers off when he barely escapes a monster, why don't you?

But credit where credit is due: Most of the characters are painstakingly drawn. Cronin is big on dead relatives as motivation, and melancholy Peter Jaxon is probably his best creation along these lines. Jaxon is a watchman at a small colony of survivors who lives his life in the shadow of his late parents and their favorite son, Theo. Much of the story is told from Peter's perspective, with welcome interludes from the points of view of Sara and Michael Fisher, a brother and sister pair who give the book some much-needed humor.

Ultimately, Cronin's distracting sloppiness can't quite drain the life from the great, old-fashioned yarn at his novel's center, but it sure comes close. We get sporadic journal entries from one of our POV characters for no discernible reason; chapter breaks seem to come totally at random; too many plot threads are left hanging, even for the first volume in a projected trilogy. Somehow, Cronin manages to leave you both frustrated and yearning for the next installment.

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