By Charles Matthews

Friday, October 8, 2010

1. The Passage, by Justin Cronin, pp. 1-17

The PassageI. The Worst Dream in the World, 5-1 B.V., One
Nineteen-year-old Jeanette, who works at a diner known as the Box somewhere in Iowa, gives birth to a daughter she names Amy Harper Bellafonte, the result of a liaison with a traveling salesman named Bill Reynolds. Jeanette lives with her widowed father, but he dies when Amy is three. Her only other relative is a brother who is in the Navy, and he never answers her letters.

One day Bill Reynolds returns, telling her that he has left his wife and children. He moves in with Jeanette and Amy, but is unable or unwilling to find work. He starts beating her, so she throws him out. To earn extra money, she takes a night job cleaning the high school. She leaves Amy with a neighbor while she works, but when the woman has to go into the hospital, Jeanette is forced to leave her at home by herself. When she tells this to another woman she works with, the woman tattles and Jeanette is fired. Desperate, she hits the road with Amy in her old Kia, taking whatever work she can find.

Finally, the car dies in Memphis. She hitches a ride with a man in a Mercedes, who pays her fifty dollars for sex. She begins turning tricks at the motel where they live, shutting Amy, who is now six, in the bathroom while the johns are there. The motel owner sells her a gun for protection. She begins to think of herself as two people:
The other Jeanette, the one who stood on the highway in her stretch top and skirt, who cocked her hip and smiled and said, What you want, baby? There something I can help you with tonight? -- that Jeanette was a made-up person, like a woman in a story she wasn't sure she wanted to know the end of. 
One night she is picked up by a college boy who takes her back to his fraternity house. Unwilling to participate in the gang-bang she foresees, she struggles with him until she finds her purse, takes the gun out of it, and shoots him. She runs to the nearest major street where she catches a bus, then changes to another bus that takes her back to the motel.

She packs their things and catches a bus that takes them back along the route she has just traveled. She remembers a church, Our Lady of Sorrows, that she saw along the way. When they reach it, she finds the other sign she had remembered: Convent of the Sisters of Mercy. The door is answered by a black woman called Lacey, who says she is originally from Sierra Leone. Jeanette tells Lacey that Amy to school when her car broke down, and pretends to call AAA, actually dialing the recorded weather report. Lacey agrees to watch Amy while Jeanette goes to meet the repairman. So Jeanette hugs Amy goodbye "as long as she dared," and leaves her there.

[There are only few hints where the story might go from here. Even if we haven't read the jacket copy or the publicity or the reviews, we have to wonder about "5-1 B.V." in the section heading, and about the opening paragraph: "Before she became the Girl from Nowhere -- the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years -- she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Bellafonte." 

It's a good beginning, I think, touchingly bleak, with a deft control of narrative voice and point of view. Without that opening paragraph, the novel might well seem to be about the adult, Jeanette, rather than the child. The point of view is Jeanette's, naive and desperate, though the voice is that of an unidentified narrator. They often intersect beautifully, as in this sentence: "He pulled up to a house with a big sign over the porch showing three shapes that looked almost like letters but not quite, and Jeanette knew what it was: a fraternity." We may quibble here that Jeanette, who has finished high school and is sophisticated enough to have read To Kill a Mockingbird, to remember that its author was Harper Lee and to name her daughter after the author, would probably know that the "three shapes" are Greek letters. But reducing them to shapes evokes the stunned detachment of Jeanette, whose habit of mind is to focus on the facts of the moment and to repress anything such as fears and feelings that might cause her to lose control. 

There is also little in this first chapter that evokes anything outside of the routine and familiar. Only one sentence, "The radio spoke all day of war," seems to hint at anything outside of Jeanette's consciousness. What war? we may ask. When is this taking place?] 

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