Chosen for both the Pulitzer Prize and coverage on "Oprah," Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel "The Road" regularly appears in debates over genre carpetbagging. Should die-hard fans of a genre (in this case science fiction) be honored or annoyed when an interloper wanders onto their creative territory? The title of McCarthy's book indicates the path its father-and-son protagonists follow, but it might also symbolize the author's journey from revered offshoot of the Melville-Hemingway-Faulkner axis to de facto practitioner of end-of-the-world lit. Justin Cronin's ample vampire-virus saga "The Passage" also presents a vivid eschatology, while its title indicates an even more profound transformation of one sort of literary sensibility into another. Whether the transformation takes is one of the tantalizing aspects of "The Passage."
Cronin's pre-"Passage" career isn't as well-known as McCarthy's pre-"Road" oeuvre was, though his debut, "Mary and O'Neil," won the 2002 PEN/Hemingway Prize. That ingeniously elliptical novel-in-stories is the epitome of the quiet literary work, populated with well-meaning characters whose lives hinge on grief and love. The book leapfrogs through time, each narrative at once discrete and integral to the larger picture. The cumulative effect, on the final page, is an overwhelming surge of emotion.
"The Passage" also has a memorable ending (more on that later), but otherwise would seem to share little with "Mary and O'Neil," which could fit inside its pages several times over. Lethal bats attack, crossbows get unloaded, rogue operatives blow up small-town civilians and death-row inmates are recruited as guinea pigs for a top-secret medical experiment. The vampires (called, variously, virals, jumps, smokes and dracs) that eventually run rampant are not the suave stuff of Bram Stoker but brutal, hideously efficient killing machines. Desire, not to mention irony, has been removed from the monster's equation. This is the straight stuff, for better or worse.
Most audaciously, Cronin allows a century to pass invisibly between the action of the opening third of the book and the start of the remainder: America has been decimated by dracs, and Cronin conjures up a new one out of its ashes — a "colony" of human survivors in California, circa 92 AV (After Virus), that relies on huge lights to fend off the photophobic creatures.
As committed as Cronin is to this brave new world of mortal combat and stunted technology, he's even more concerned with making his characters recognizably human. The first 250 pages are nearly flawless. Set slightly in the future, it weaves an intricate but always compelling story centering on a girl named Amy, whose hard-luck mother abandons her to an African-born nun named Lacey; and Wolgast, the FBI agent assigned to retrieve her for Project NOAH, a mysterious, military-bankrolled experiment in longevity that will soon run amok. Wolgast finds in Amy the daughter he lost. Here Cronin also gives us deep-background miniatures of minor characters, and though the prose is occasionally overwrought, it's never boring.
Honing in on vampires' traditional immortality, "The Passage" initially has the lineaments of a morality tale. The middle third begins with a dizzying series of enticing documents, found material that lends a human touch to the far-future setting. But soon enough, "The Passage" slips into a less-exacting version of the voice used earlier, and the narration often feels portentous and slack. And, although the effect of omnipresent fear can be enhanced by keeping the Other as a murky object of anxiety, it can also defang the creature in question. I could have used less claustrophobia and more reminders like this:
"Peter had gotten used to the virals' appearance but still found it unnerving to see one close up. The way the facial features seemed to have been buffed away, smoothed into an almost infantile blandness; the curling expansion of the hands and feet, with their grasping digits and razor-sharp claws; the dense muscularity of the limbs and torso and the long, gimballed neck; the slivered teeth crowding the mouth like spikes of steel."
Things pick up, largely due to some show-stopping action sequences. Amy comes to the California outpost — nine decades older, yet frozen as a preteen — and the last third takes the form of a quest, as a band of colonists sets out to solve the mystery of the girl's origins. One major drawback, strangely, is Amy herself. Nearly mute and observed almost entirely from the outside at this point, she comes off at best as a sort of heroic enigma. The reader roots for her, certainly, and grasps why the colonists are so curious about her strange abilities. But if Cronin has made us privy to so many other points of view, why can't we experience hers?
Some readers will feel compelled to follow the story — there are plotlines to burn — through the next two volumes of Cronin's trilogy. Others, like myself, will be content with "The Passage" alone, letting Amy and the colonists come to rest in this book's uneasy limbo.
Park is the author of "Personal Days: a Novel" and writes the Astral Weeks column, which appears at latimes.com/books.