Nothing adds piquancy to a good post-apocalyptic audiobook like listening to it in quasi-apocalyptic circumstances. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when not boiling pot after pot of water in my frigid and lightless Manhattan apartment, I eked out the battery on my iPod catching up with Justin Cronin’s epic, end-of-the-world vampire-zombie saga. It began with “The Passage” and now continues, in the second of a projected three volumes, with “The Twelve.”
In Cronin’s dystopian hellscape, “virals” harry the few remaining pockets of humanity in the continental U.S. The infected feed on blood and exhibit a certain animal cunning, but have no memory of their former lives. Each serves as a drone-like follower to one of 12 original vampires, test subjects in a military experiment gone very, very wrong. A couple of generations after these creatures have laid waste to the country, the more intrepid characters from the last half of “The Passage” continue their quest to kill the 12, thereby liberating their hives into true death.
There have been some complaints about “The Twelve,” which I suppose are understandable. Cronin, a former literary novelist who turned to genre, has chosen to introduce many new characters, taking some of them back to the first days of the plague and describing intervening events in other communities. This novel lacks the forward narrative propulsion of “The Passage” and most of the fundamental mysteries of Cronin’s imaginary world have already been solved — a no-no for many readers who prefer simpler chronological plots and the focus kept on a few central characters and questions.
Instead, with “The Twelve,” Cronin loosens the reins on his literary propensities and spends time filling in the quotidian textures of post-apocalyptic life — what a long-deserted Home Depot might look like, how different settlements of survivors might cultivate a food supply or organize their family lives, etc. Characters of stock origin, such as a ruthless government operative, are given richer back stories than is customary in most books of this kind. All this is at the risk of giving less-patient readers the feeling that his narrative lacks a point.
But listening to Scott Brick narrate “The Twelve” in an eerily dark and silent post-Sandy Manhattan made Cronin’s deeper consideration of a post-civilized world pretty darn compelling. He has clearly thought a great deal about the romance of the frontier, a yearning so deeply buried in the American psyche that, after we got tired of straightforward stories about it, we reinvented the theme by setting it in the future. It’s a fantasy disguised as a nightmare. But after sampling just the briefest taste of the reality, I find Cronin’s sober, nuanced depiction far more plausible than the action-movie exploits and melodrama usually applied to this motif.
Brick’s narration, while accomplished, sometimes feels calibrated for the potboiler Cronin didn’t write. Brick has read many of Nelson DeMille’s far more conventional thrillers, and he seems to think that’s what he’s got here, a novel whose primary emotional tone is one of macho sentimentality inside a thin shell of tough-guy terseness. Sometimes that works, as when he’s narrating some of the strongest passages in the book, those told from the point of view of the villain, Horace Guilder. In others, his oddly lilting cadences register as faintly histrionic. But in the inky dark, thinking about how you’d survived if the lights never came back on? Well, let’s just say that extra dollop of drama went down easy.
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