Book Reviews

The Privileged and Unlikable Protagonist in Justin Cronin’s The Ferryman

On the isolated island of Prospera, there are rich and poor. When the rich get too old, they reboot. All 1% wear a device on their arm that gives them a score from 1 to 100. If their numbers fall below a certain number, they are supposed to travel to a neighboring island called “The Nursery,” where their memories are wiped and their bodies rejuvenated, ready to be transformed into adult bodies (ostensibly a piece of Whiteboard). They return to Prospera as a child, ready to start a new life. No one leaves Prospera, and no one visits. Those who live there reside in a little bubble of unknown origin and have no idea what (if any) previous lives were like.

Proctor Bennett was a native of Prospera and a ferryman, a government official whose job it was to guide the island’s elderly residents onto boats and take them to The Nursery, where their memories of practicing yoga and playing tennis at the local country club were erased, knowing the end of their lives. Not surprisingly, a great mystery shrouds both Prospera and the outbuildings where the poor lived the old-fashioned way (i.e., they were born from human bodies, as babies) and worked locally, providing jobs for the wealthy and prosperous.

This mystery is at the heart of Justin Cronin’s The Ferryman. When Proctor had to take his father to the ferry, things started to go irreparably wrong. From there, the world’s secrets are slowly unraveled in typical sci-fi thriller fashion, with the main character facing his own existential crisis in the process. Proctor, the quintessentially privileged male protagonist, quickly unravels the book’s mysteries in his first-person purple prose as he finds himself either caught up in thriller-style action sequences or with one of two women in romantic entanglements. Someone falls in love with him (because of course, two women fall in love with him) or has sex with other people.

However, it would be incorrect to call The Ferryman a mere thriller. Cronin excels in his other works—whether it’s “Passage,” his first foray into the genre (and its two lesser follow-ups), or “The Summer Guest,” his earlier novel about a family in Maine, all in his descriptions of human relationships, especially those between parents and children. The Ferryman also delves into these family ties in meaningful ways, especially those surrounding Proctor, including his wife. Where the book falls short for me, though, is that Proctor is so fundamentally unlikable and unsympathetic that I can barely care about his struggles, his relationships, or even when his life is threatened. While the novel does explore central themes of grief and questioning the constitution of reality in appropriate ways, the emotions from these themes have to be filtered through Proctor’s point of view, and because of that, their message falls flat.

Yes, one could say that Proctor is an anti-hero, an unlikable protagonist who is deliberately far from perfect. His aforementioned purple prose certainly adds to this, making his remarks seem ridiculously overblown at times for the situation at hand. Take this passage on page 93 of the hardcover edition, where Proctor describes how he felt when he woke up one morning, a little uncomfortable: “What a state I was in! I awoke from a dream, find myself in more dreams. Who says I haven’t slept yet?” Shakespeare’s prose is really for people waiting for their coffee.

Is Proctor just that—for lack of a better word—obnoxious? An unlikable protagonist can certainly work, and it’s a good approach. However, it’s one thing to be unlikable, and quite another to not care at all about the pain an unlikable character is going through, especially when the female characters in the book are treated in such a stereotypical way.

The women in this novel are merely Proctor’s support structures, and with one notable exception, the main female characters in the book are either his mother or someone he has sex with. For a moment, one of the female characters takes on a bigger role in the plot, but even this “twist” embodies common tropes about mothers and how they face horrific events compared to fathers’ “instability.” Even though the book periodically switches Proctor’s perspective to one of the female characters, the conversation remains centered on Proctor, and few women talk about things that have nothing to do with the man (and that man is usually Proctor).

The plot is also familiar in the genre’s realm, and even the big twists that occur about 75 percent of the story feel like they’ve happened before. All in all, The Ferryman is a book that aims to be profound (goodness, Shakespeare’s The Tempest is an obvious source of inspiration!) but ends up going down a well-worn path, with characters that aren’t compelling enough, and it triesto grab at the heartstrings but isn’t compelling enough to make its 538 pages memorable or even worth reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *