There are summer books, and then there are summer bricks those tantalizing, toaster-oven-size tomes that strain beach totes with their sheer physical (if not always intellectual) heft. At 766 pages, Justin Cronin's ambitious doorstop The Passage is heavyweight in more ways than one: The little-known Rice University English professor's apocalyptic novel has already earned him a seven-figure advance, sparked a film-rights bidding war, and moved Stephen King to rave like a proud uncle on the book's back jacket.
Can that many prognosticators be wrong? In a word, no. The Passage, set in the near American future (Texas is now overseen by Gov. Jenna Bush), expertly draws together the parallel story lines of an unusually watchful, stoic little girl named Amy and a covert Army experiment to turn the human body into a bioweapon, using death-row inmates as test subjects.
Cronin painstakingly weaves the threads of a narrative so involving and immediate that when he jumps ahead almost a century, it's hard at first to release those characters and invest in the dozens of new ones that emerge in the Stand–meets–The Road journey that follows. The Passage owes a substantial debt to both King's 1978 epic and Cormac McCarthy's 2007 Pulitzer winner, and he is not immune to some of the hoarier tropes of Armageddon fiction (mystical children, cryptic-wisdom-spouting old folks, impossibly arduous vision quests). But his bogeymen, the vampiric, blood- hungry beasts known as ''virals,'' are magnificently unnerving, and his power to compel readers to the next page seldom flags. With a cliff-hanging tease of an ending The Passage is only the first in a proposed trilogy he has also (tote-bag alert!) primed them for several thousand more. A–