James Patterson finishes Michael Crichton’s book, with explosive results

james patterson finishes michael crichton’s book, with explosive results

James Patterson finishes Michael Crichton’s book, with explosive results

Death has not appreciably slowed Michael Crichton’s publication schedule. Since he passed away in 2008, several of his manuscripts caught in the amber of time have been zapped to life and set free to stomp around the world alongside “The Andromeda Strain,” “Jurassic Park,” “Congo” and his many other best-selling novels.

james patterson finishes michael crichton’s book, with explosive results

Michael Crichton.

Still, one story that Crichton had worked on for 20 years remained dormant on his hard drive. In a recent statement, Crichton’s wife, Sherri, described discovering the unfinished draft: “When I came to the abrupt end, it was the ultimate cliffhanger — though, for the first time, not one that Michael had meticulously planned.”

This fragment might never have seen the rising sun, but when enough money is involved, life finds a way. So now, trailing thunderous clouds of publicity, the summer’s ultimate literary mashup arrives June 3: “Eruption,” a Crichton manuscript completed by James Patterson. As author partnerships go, this is Godzilla’s head grafted onto King Kong’s body. Of course, Hollywood is already buzzing around it, and why not? Together, these two authors — or their brands — have sold an estimated 675 million copies, one for every year since the Neoproterozoic era.

“Eruption” opens with a prologue set in Hawaii at the Hilo Botanical Gardens. Rachel, a park biologist, “just couldn’t believe her eyes”: Three banyan trees have died and turned black. “Rachel had never seen or read about anything like this. . . . This was something else. Something dark, maybe even dangerous.” An old friend tells her, “Don’t panic,” but “she was scared.”

This is an opening sure to leave amateur gardeners on the edge of their Adirondack chairs. The rest of us will have to take it on faith that even greater horrors than a few withered trees lie ahead.

Sure enough, nine years later, when the action picks up again, 36-year-old John “Mac” MacGregor hears a deep rumbling and feels the beach shaking. As director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Mac understands what that means. “He’d always known this day would come.” Steam is already wafting up from the top of Mauna Loa, the planet’s biggest active volcano, a colossus that rises almost six miles off the ocean floor. “The eruption was only days away.”

Welcome to Mac Versus the Volcano.

Speaking at a quickly assembled news conference, Mac says, “Volcanoes are a little — or a lot — like wild animals.” But to keep from causing panic, he doesn’t tell the public they’re about to experience “the biggest eruption in a century,” which six pages later someone else describes as “the biggest damn eruption in a century,” so we know it’s going to be really big.

Not to worry, though. Scientists have been studying Mauna Loa for a long time, and — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — they’ve got a fail-safe plan to intervene and control the forces of nature. By precisely placing explosives around the island, these eggheads imagine they can “vent the volcano” and safely direct millions of tons of lava wherever they choose.

Of course, Mac — handsome, can-do Mac, who’s also an accomplished surfer, by the way — knows this plan is crazy. “The eruption in 1984 wasn’t particularly large,” he reminds his colleagues, “but it produced enough lava to bury Manhattan to a depth of thirty feet.” So, vent Mauna Loa and safely channel its wrath? Good luck!

james patterson finishes michael crichton’s book, with explosive results

But Mac and his team will need more than luck, because “Eruption” isn’t just a story about some lava threatening Hawaiian residents. For decades, the Army has been secretly storing radioactive waste laced with an experimental defoliant in hundreds of fragile glass canisters underground. Mauna Loa’s coming hissy fit threatens to send lava down those holes, release the toxic waste into the atmosphere and kill all life on Earth.

In response to a classified briefing on this impending apocalypse, Mac says, “Give me an hour.”

“To do what?”

“To come up with a plan so we don’t have to kiss our asses goodbye.”

Presented with a choice between reading dialogue like this or being submerged in lava, I’d be stumped. But “Eruption” disgorges a lot of both. The authors tell us, “The world might be about to explode, but guys were guys.” And it seems women were girls. Whenever female characters — no matter how well qualified and credentialed — enter these pages, their cutesy banter sounds 1940s-fresh. The lead demolition expert, who “would have looked like a high-school cheerleader if it weren’t for her wire-frame glasses” — says to Mac: “Well, if you can’t buy a girl lunch, how about dinner later?” A New York Times reporter trying to wheedle her way into Mac’s good graces says, “Anyplace around here where a girl could get a cup of coffee?”

And while surveying those glass canisters of poison, one of Mac’s “extremely attractive” colleagues asks, “Can I be honest?”

“When are you not?”

“I don’t want to die, Mac.”

“And you’re not going to,” he says. “Not on my watch.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone actually saying these lines, but “Eruption” is written with such longing for its next iteration as a big-budget movie that casting suggestions are embedded right in the text. The head of the geophysical modeling team from the Army Ordnance Corps is “a George Clooney look-alike.” Gen. Mark Rivers, who oversees the military operation on the island, has the “rugged good looks of the actor Pierce Brosnan.” And the New York Times reporter with “a winning smile” looks like “Halle Berry.”

The bigger challenge for “Eruption,” though, is keeping everybody busy while we’re waiting for the Big Bang. No matter how broad a hero’s shoulders or how square his jawline, nobody looks particularly impressive while bickering about competing contingency plans. It’s a reminder that the only thing more dispiriting than a mountain blowing up is a tense department meeting. One can sense here Patterson straining to dramatize Crichton’s explanations of volcanic science. A couple of times characters are practically abducted and then subjected to what feels like a grandiose PowerPoint presentation. An obnoxious Elon Musk-like character flies in to save the day with two shameless publicity hounds, but all their scenes are played with Vaudevillian subtlety. And efforts to flesh out Mac’s troubled marriage feel entirely superfluous.

Fortunately, those slow spots will eventually be burned away by the impending cataclysm. What lingers, though, is how clumsily “Eruption” handles the racial component of its plot and setting. This is, at its heart, a White savior story heated to 2,000 degrees. Yes, there’s some perfunctory acknowledgment of the native Hawaiians and their volcano deity Pele, but all told, the authors’ cultural investment feels as deep as buying a plastic lei at the Honolulu airport. And what genius thought it was a good idea in the year 2024 to write about a radioactive poison so horrible, so fearsome that it turns victims’ skin “black”?

When Mauna Loa does finally blow, it’s not so much a disaster as a relief. At last, we get the mayhem we came for. A couple of beloved characters are killed, which is very sad, and a few irritating ones are burned to a crisp, which is very satisfying. A scientist watching the destruction on his monitor declares: “Never this much lava. Never this much vog. This is our perfect storm” — a line I’ve begun using at home whenever the laundry gets out of control.

Patterson’s imprint feels strongest in the novel’s final extended sequence. Death-defying scenes are minced into such brief segments that it feels as though a character could start to blink in one chapter and open his eyes in the next. But even with a plot that’s more igneous than ingenious, you won’t know what’s coming.

In this grand battle between a brave scientist and the world’s largest, most toxic volcanic eruption, nothing is guaranteed.

Don your oven mitts.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post. He is the book critic for “CBS Sunday Morning.”

Eruption

By Michael Crichton and James Patterson

Little, Brown. 424 pp. $32

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