By Charles Matthews

Saturday, October 9, 2010

2. The Passage, by Justin Cronin, pp. 18-54

The PassageI. The Worst Dream in the World, 5-1 B.V., Two-Three
In a series of e-mails, Jonas Abbott Lear, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, writes to his Harvard colleague and "squash partner," Paul Kiernan, about the expedition he is on in the Bolivian jungles. Although staffed by scientists from UCLA, Columbia and MIT, as well as Harvard, it's being conducted and financed by the army, specifically the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). Lear suggests that the expedition may give him "the chance to solve the greatest mystery of all -- the mystery of death itself." Lear is also known as "the vampire guy," a label given him by a civilian named Mark Cole, who is somehow attached to the military contingent -- Lear guesses that he's with the NSA. 

Six days into the trek through the jungles, and twenty kilometers from "the site," Lear reports that they came across a statue: "A human being, but not quite: the bent animal posture, the clawlike hands and the long teeth crowding the mouth, the intense muscularity of the torso, details still visible, somehow, after how long?" He notes the resemblance to images discovered elsewhere: "the pillars at the temple of Mansarha, the carvings on the gravesite in Xianyang, the cave drawings in Côtes d'Amor." [Of these places, only Xianyang is easily located on a map, though there is a village called Mansara in India and the Côtes-d'Armor in Brittany.] He also reports that they seem to be encountering lots of bats.

Three days later, he sends Kiernan some jpegs of more "figures," presumably like the statue, and reports that they're within ten kilometers of the site. A post the next day is ominously blank, but two days later, "less than five kilometers from the grave site," he reports disaster: Swarms of bats attacked the expedition two nights earlier, killing four people and biting or scratching sex others, who are suffering from "what looks like some speeded-up version of Bolivian hemorrhagic fever." Last night they killed four more, including Cole: "they actually lifted him off his feet before they bored through him like hot knives through butter. There was barely enough of him left to bury." A few hours later, Lear responds to an e-mail from Kiernan with the subject line "don't be dumb, get the hell out, please," that they have radioed for evacuation of the most critically wounded survivors, but that the healthy ones, which include him, have decided to go on to the site. One of the scientists, Tim Fanning of Columbia, whom Lear had earlier reported as "the sickest of the lot," seems however to be improving.

The next night, apparently having reached the site, Lear e-mails only: "Now I know why the soldiers are here."

Anthony Lloyd Carter is on death row in Texas for murdering a Houston woman, Rachel Wood, whose lawn he mowed. He has had no visitors during the "one thousand three hundred and thirty-two days" he has been there, except for Mr. Wood, who came to tell Carter that he had found Jesus and forgave him. Which only puzzles Carter, who can't figure out why he killed Rachel Wood to start with. But now, to his surprise, the guards arrive to tell him he has a visitor.

The visitor is Brad Wolgast, a forty-four-year-old FBI agent, who is on a special assignment that has taken him to Nevada, Arizona, Louisiana, Kentucky, Wyoming, Florida, Indiana and Delaware, and now to Texas, which he hates because he spent three years there as a kid in Houston. He is accompanied by an agent named Phil Doyle, "not even thirty, a cherry-cheeked farmboy from Indiana." Wolgast has grown hardened to the job:
These men were black or white, fat or thin, old or young, but the eyes were always the same: empty, like drains that could suck the whole world down into them. It was easy to sympathize with them in the abstract, but only in the abstract. 
He lets Doyle fill him in on Carter's particulars: "African American, five foot four, a hundred and twenty pounds." He is nicknamed T-Tone. Carter has no family, and has a minor record for "petty stuff, panhandling, public nuisance, that kind of thing." Rachel Wood lived in River Oaks with her husband, a lawyer, and their two girls. She saw Carter one day with a sign, HUNGRY, PLEASE HELP, and decided to give him a job and to recommend him to her friends who needed yard work done. Two years later, one of the girls, five years old, saw Carter in the yard and started screaming. Rachel came to see what was wrong and screamed at Carter, then somehow fell into the swimming pool and drowned, perhaps in a struggle with Carter. A neighbor found him sitting on the side of the pool with Rachel's body floating in it. When he was arrested, Carter said only that he "wanted her to stop screaming. Then he asked for a glass of iced tea."

Wolgast wonders what had made Doyle sign up for this assignment. "Doyle had joined the  Bureau right after the Mall of America Massacre -- three hundred holiday shoppers gunned down by Iranian jihadists." He had been assigned to counterterrorism, but when the Army came to the Denver field office looking for volunteers for something called "Project NOAH," Doyle had signed up. Wolgast had signed up for it because is "looked like a dead end," which is what he was looking for after the divorce from his wife, Lila.

At the prison, the warden is reluctant to sign over Carter and says he'll need an order from the governor before he can proceed. This annoys Wolgast because it means he'll have to spend more time in Texas. After passing the request along to his superior, Col. Sykes, Wolgast and Doyle go to a bar, where they talk about the news that Wolgast has received in an e-mail from his ex-wife, Lila: She is marrying again and expecting a child. Doyle stays at the bar to pick up one of the college girls who are there, and Wolgast goes back to the motel, where he calls Lila to congratulate her. They had had a daughter, Eva, who we gather is dead, but after a moment of shared sadness, they quarrel and hang up.

We flash back to Wolgast's introduction to Project NOAH, a trip to "the compound," somewhere west of Denver in the mountains. He is met by a civilian named Richards, who takes him to see Col. Sykes, who tells him the basics: "The Army needed between ten and twenty death row inmates to serve in the third-stage trials of an experimental drug therapy, code-named 'Project NOAH." In exchange for their consent, the inmates would have their sentences commuted to life without parole." They would spend the rest of their lives under a new identity in a "white-collar" prison camp. All of them would be men between twenty and thirty-five with no family. 

When Wolgast asks what this is all about, Sykes tells him that ten years earlier the Centers for Disease Control had been contacted by a doctor in La Paz who had four patients with what looked like hantavirus. They were all Americans over fifty with terminal cancer who had been on trip in the jungle sponsored by an organization called Last Wish. They said they had been part of a group of fourteen, but had gotten separated from the rest of the group and were rescued by Franciscan friars who ran a trading post in the jungle. But after the doctor reported them, they all became well again, with no sign of either hanta or cancer. When scans were run on them, it was discovered that in all of them the thymus gland had enlarged to three times its size. And no only were they well, they had been rejuvenated: "It was like they were teenagers again: smell, hearing, vision, skin tone, lung volume, physical strength and endurance, even sexual function." But the effect didn't last: They all died, of aneurysm, heart attack or stroke, within eighty-six days.  

So the Army is looking for test subjects to see if the virus can be used to cure diseases. When Wolgast asks why the Army is in charge, Sykes points out the obvious military applications: "We've been at war for fifteen years, Agent. By the look of things, we'll be in it for fifteen more if we're lucky. I won't kid you. The single biggest challenge the military faces, has always faced, is keeping soldiers on the field." So if something could be done to patch up the wounded and send them back into combat swiftly, the Army would definitely be interested. 

Sykes turns Wolgast over to Richards again, but Wolgast has one last question: "Why NOAH? What's it stand for?" And when Sykes looks at Richards before replying, he senses that Richards represents whoever is really behind the project -- just as Lear had sensed that Cole, the civilian, was somehow in charge in the jungle. It isn't an acronym, Sykes indicates, and suggests that Wolgast look up the biblical Noah. Back home in Denver, Wolgast goes online and reads: "And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died." [So why isn't it Project METHUSELAH?"] And he realizes, "They'd chosen him because of Eva, because he'd had to watch his daughter die." 

The next morning, word comes that all is in order for Carter to be handed over to them. They meet Carter in the visiting room of the prison where Wolgast uses the clout of the FBI to have Carter's shackles removed. He sends Doyle for some food for Carter, a cheeseburger and fries, which Carter wolfs down. And then, remembering Carter's request when he was arrested, sends Doyle for iced tea. Looking at Carter, Wolgast senses "something about him, different from the others." And he presents the possibility of his leaving death row to him. "It always amazed Wolgast how much accepting the idea of commutation resembled the five stages of grief. Right now, Carter was in denial. The idea was just too much to take in." He shows him the writ, signed by Gov. Jenna Bush, whom Carter says he always liked "'when she was first lady.' Wolgast let the error pass." 

Doyle arrives with the iced tea, and something about the way Carter looks at it makes Wolgast think, "Anthony Carter wasn't guilty, at least not in the way the court had spun it.... Something had happened that day in the yard; the woman had died. But there was more to it, maybe a lot more." Carter touches the glass of iced tea and says he still needs time to figure out what happened on the day Rachel Wood was murdered. Wolgast remembers the quote about Noah, and says he can give Carter "All the time in the world. An ocean of time." And Carter agrees to the deal. 

Waiting for their flight out of Houston, Wolgast remembers the counselor talking to him and Lila after Eva's death. But then he's approached by an agent from the Huston FBI office who tells him that plans have changed and he won't be taking this flight, that there's a car waiting outside. He hands him a fax that Wolgast reads with disbelief, and then shows to Doyle, who has returned from the Taco Bell stand. "Sweet Jesus, Phil. It's a civilian." 

[I'm no fan of using e-mails as a narrative device, even though the epistolary novel is one of the oldest forms of the genre. (I can foresee the day when, if it hasn't happened yet and I mercifully missed it, someone will write a whole novel in tweets.)  I can see why Cronin chooses to do it: It sharply limits the point of view, and it introduces background in a tantalizing way without the need for extraneous exposition, dialogue, and characterization. But there's something a bit mechanical about it here, especially in comparison with Cronin's deft use of voice and point of view in the opening section. 

Questions are beginning to be answered, very artfully. There is a reference to "the Iran War," which is presumably the war that the radio "spoke all day" of in the first chapter. It seems to have been touched off by the Mall of America Massacre. The war seems to be not only in Iran, but also in Chechnya, as Sykes's reference to "a soldier on the ground in Khorramabad or Grozny" indicates. We can now calculate the year in which the novel is set as 2018: Wolgast, born in 1974, is forty-four years old, and the war has been going on for fifteen years, assuming that its starting point was in Iraq in 2003. And nothing much else has changed: Everyone in Texas is still driving "giant pickup trucks" even though gas is now "thirteen bucks a gallon and the world was slowly steaming itself to death," suggesting that American inertia on energy and climate change has continued. And Jenna Bush is governor of Texas. 

That last is perhaps a little over the top, but Cronin still maintains his ability to subtly link one character with another. Anthony Carter's mind is "so blank it was like a pail with nothing in it." Wolgast lies in bed with the TV on, "not really caring one way or the other about it, but it gave his mind something to focus on." Cronin's characters have inner lives, even when they have an absence of inner life. The secondary mystery of Carter's murder of Rachel Wood also enriches the novel, giving us another puzzle to solve than the primary one of Project NOAH.]

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