Fans of Justin Cronin have been waiting a long time for his latest novel.
The author made his literary debut in 2001 with the PEN/Hemingway Award–winning Mary and O’Neil, following that up three years later with The Summer Guest. But he became a bona fide literary star in 2010 with The Passage, the first installment in a trilogy of novels that became bestsellers and inspired a 2019 television series. The books dealt with a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a scary, contagious virus.
The final novel in the trilogy, The City of Mirrors, was published in 2016. Since then, he’s been at work on The Ferryman (Ballantine, May 2)—but not consistently, due to forces beyond his control although not beyond his foresight.
“The pandemic was not good for me at all as a writer,” Cronin says. “I just took long naps and watched Netflix. There were some people who were writing like mad; I was not one of them. And a funny thing happened: I got vaccinated and I finished the book just like that.”
The Ferryman follows Proctor Bennett, who lives in the archipelago state of Prospera. The nation’s main island is a planned utopia, where residents live the good life and pursue artistic endeavors. When they become ill or older, they’re escorted to a boat—by people like Proctor—bound for another island, where they’re reborn, younger and fitter.
When Proctor is assigned to escort his father to the boat, things fall apart. The older man starts uttering what Proctor thinks are nonsensical words and phrases like “Oranios,” and insisting that things aren’t as they seem. After Proctor loses his job, he’s contacted by a woman with ties to the Annex, an island that houses Prospera’s increasingly dissatisfied lower-income support staff, and he begins to realize that his father might have been trying to pass on an unsettling secret. In a starred review, a Kirkus critic calls the novel “yet another excellent offering from an author with a boundless imagination and talent to spare” and “twisty, thrilling, and beautifully written.”
Cronin, who lives in Houston and Cape Cod, talked to Kirkus about The Ferryman via Zoom from Texas. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did the idea for The Ferryman come to you?
This one started when I was taking a walk on a starry night on the Cape. This word dropped into my head; I had no idea what it was, what it meant. It was “Oranios,” which is kind of the “open sesame” word of the novel, the key to the book. I looked it up later; it’s the name of the god of the heavens. At the same time, this scene came to mind, which became the first major scene in the novel: An old man is on a pier, having some kind of psychological break, and another man who is wearing a black suit is trying to talk to him.
This book deals with themes including aging, health care, and class.
The book is basically looking at the very top level of society and how they live, the ideal life for people of immense privilege. Eventually, for the people who can afford it, we will become enormously long-lived. They say that the first person who will live to 150 has already been born. So as life expectancy increases, an enormous number of social institutions will have to be completely rethought.
In the book, the people who are very, very wealthy need to build a society around constant renewal to stay interested in life. And as Proctor says in the book, the problem is that time itself has weight. The human body can be sustained for an enormously long time via technology, but at some point, the experience of being alive reaches a maximum. One of the things that gives meaning to life is that it’s temporary, it has a sell-by date. So these people have devised a system under which they can experience constant refreshment and have these wonderful lives. It’s like Marin County on steroids. Then when it’s all over, they don’t have to die; they just wipe the slate clean. They get to go back and do it all again. Sounds great—except it’s not.
And then there’s the people of the Annex, who are starting to rebel.
The best analog is the French Revolution, and we know how that went. One of the problems with the massive gap in wealth in this country, apart from its immorality and complete ethical bankruptcy, is the fact that this story only ends one way. Sooner or later, the have-nots do the math. They say to themselves, Not only do they have everything, but there are a lot more of us than there are of them. So unless Jeff Bezos and all these guys start giving it all away and acting responsibly, it’s not going to end well for them. It’s not sustainable.
You’ve said before that The Passage was influenced by The Odyssey and Lonesome Dove. Was there a literary work that influenced this one?
There was, but I didn’t realize it until I was about halfway through the book—The Tempest. The funny thing about that is that I read it in 1982, and I cannot recall reading it another time. I have never seen it performed. I never saw any of the film adaptations. It’s simply a play that I read in college that I did indeed love a great deal. So I’m halfway through the book and it hadn’t even occurred to me that I’ve chosen the name Prospera and that I have an Ariel and a Caliban and a Miranda. And the themes that are present in The Tempest—a magic island, a magician at the court—all these things are very much in the novel and eventually get quoted directly in the later portion of the book.
There’s a major plot twist in the book, and some early reviewers have mentioned they were really surprised by it. Did you know that was going to shock readers?
That was the plan. That’s why I wrote 17 drafts of this novel. Because I wanted it to be a perfect surprise. I wanted to write a holy-shit novel. A holy-shit novel is a novel where three-quarters of the way through, you scream, Holy shit! and send it flying across the room. That was my goal: to write a book that had a twist that revised everything that the reader had thought and known or experienced reading it. I wanted the reader to reach a moment in the novel and realize that there’s a way they’d been reading it, and then they look down the hallway of the book and realize everything is not quite what they thought. And my literary antecedent for that was the last two minutes of the original Planet of the Apes.
There was a time in America when it was possible to see Planet of the Apes without knowing how it ended [beforehand]. I saw it when I was 10 to 12 years old, and of course there’s that final moment, which is now the origin of a thousand million memes. It’s become an indelible cultural touchstone. But it blew the top of my head off. I’ve always wanted to be able to pull off that trick, but it had eluded me. I’d never been able to do it. So far the word on [the twist] is good. I’m feeling great about the fact that people don’t seem to see it coming.
Michael Schaub, a journalist and regular contributor to NPR, lives near Austin, Texas.