I’m not sure it’s a good idea to release a thriller about a pandemic that sweeps the world at a time when a pandemic is actually sweeping the world. Or maybe there’s no better time.
Lawrence Wright’s harrowing new novel, “The End of October,” will either be a blockbuster bestseller because it is fascinating, detailed, true to life and so terrifying it will scare the sleep right out of you. Or it will be a massive failure for the very same reasons.
Wright is a brilliant reporter and an excellent writer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “The Looming Tower,” his nonfiction account of al-Qaida. He draws on his immense reporting skills as well as his knowledge of the Middle East for this novel, whose unlikely hero is a middle-aged microbiologist named Henry who works for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Henry is a small man with a big head and a body rendered weak by a childhood bout of rickets. He walks with a cane. He carries, as all great protagonists do, a dark secret.
The book builds slowly. In the first half, Henry heads to Pakistan, where there have been reports of a deadly virus in a camp where HIV-positive men have been quarantined. It might be SARS, it might be MERS, or it might be something new.
The virus escapes the quarantine when Henry’s driver travels to Mecca along with millions of other pilgrims, and Henry takes off in pursuit. The scenes in Saudi Arabia shimmer with desert heat and thrum with the complexity of Wright’s Muslim characters and their sometimes conflicting beliefs.
Wright is excellent at gracefully working the science of viruses into the narrative, and the first half of the book, though fiction, is a great primer, in many ways, of what is happening now with COVID-19.
But if the first half of the book is a slow build, the second half is almost pure action — pure, heart-stopping action.
War breaks out in the Middle East, oil fields are bombed and Putin seizes the opportunity amid the chaos to attack the United States in all-out cyberwar. Power plants explode, the grid goes down, grocery stores run out of food and ATMs run out of cash. People hole up in their homes with guns. It’s every person — or child — for himself.
The unnamed president is easily recognizable — a vain man, “self-conscious about his girth,” with a weird orange tan who has only a couple of lines in the book but whose entire personality is made clear. At the first hint of an antiserum — untested and unproven — the president commandeers the supply for himself and his family. When the medics arrive to administer it, someone asks about the First Lady. “Well, she’s not coming,” the president says, dropping trou for his injection. “I guess she doesn’t trust you people.”
The unnamed vice president is a white-haired, pious man, completely out of his depth, who ends up being placed into what is essentially a gigantic plastic hamster ball to keep him safe from germs. So there’s that — a bit of comic relief, though dark humor for sure.
Because there’s massive death, the book has gruesome scenes, but Wright doesn’t linger — just plants a few indelible images in our heads and then moves on.
The book came about, Wright said in an interview, after a discussion with filmmaker Ridley Scott about what had led to the collapse of civilization in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Wright says he wrote “October” as a wake-up call. “But it turns out,” he said, “the waking up took place before the call.”
This book will wake you up, and keep you awake. All night.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune and president of the National Book Critics Circle. @StribBooks
The End of October
By: Lawrence Wright.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 380 pages, $27.95.