The End of October by Lawrence Wright: A review

I vowed that I would not be reading any pandemic-related or apocalyptic novels during our current public health crisis, so how exactly did I end up reading this book? I saw the review in The New York Times and the writer's name caught my attention. Lawrence Wright is a respected journalist and has written a number of well-received and occasionally award-winning nonfiction books. His most recent was a love letter to Texas called God Save Texas, another one of those books that I had always intended to read but still haven't got around to it. Wright lives in Austin.

His latest book was described as "eerily prescient." It was mostly written in 2017 with the final work on it coming in 2019. But the description proved correct; reading it was a bit like reading the daily news reports of the coronavirus pandemic. Having it all put together in a coherent narrative really made the sequence of events of the actual pandemic more understandable for me. 

Wright is, as I said, a journalist and works mostly in nonfiction and that really shows in his research for this book. It seemed impeccable to me. Perhaps an epidemiologist might find something to fault, but it all seemed pretty systematic and comprehensible to me.

Unfortunately, I can't really say the same for the editing of the book. I was reading about a third of a way through the book when I came upon a description of a character who had a "nervous tick in his eye." Immediately, I was beset by the image of an antsy arachnid waving its eight legs around on the fellow's eye. That was only one example. There were other bits of sloppy editing throughout the book, the kind of things that just really set my teeth on edge. I guess you could say it's my reader tic. But I soldiered on, endeavoring not to let the sloppy editing color my overall impression of the book.

There is, in fact, a lot to like about the book. My favorite parts were the actual descriptions of viruses and how they work, how they replicate, and the part they play in the greater environment and the process of evolution. As I said, Wright's research was extensive and his ability to popularize difficult subjects is exceptional. His storytelling craft is, unfortunately, not on the same level. The plot starts out ably enough but eventually, it becomes burdened by the writer trying to make it even more complicated and thrillerish than it needs to be. Moreover, the characters are flat, despite his best efforts. That is especially true for the female characters, or maybe I was just more sensitive to their one-dimensionality.

Wright's protagonist is Dr. Henry Parsons, head of the infectious disease section of the CDC in Atlanta. He is a world-famous microbiologist and epidemiologist and when an internment camp in Indonesia reports forty-seven people dead of an unknown acute hemorrhagic fever, the World Health Organization enlists him to go and investigate. It's the kind of thing he has done many times before. He leaves his wife and two children behind, promising to be back in a few days for his young son's birthday. We begin to suspect pretty quickly that he is not going to be able to keep that promise.

Parsons arrives in Indonesia to a burgeoning disaster. The Medicins Sans Frontieres doctors who had been sent there to deal with what they had thought was an H.I.V outbreak and who had subsequently raised the alarm are all dead. Parsons wore protective garments but may still have been exposed to the disease, whatever it is. Moreover, he has nothing to fight the illness which is raging among the inmates. He himself will have to be quarantined for two weeks, but he does manage to get a message out, and soon the camp is swarming with medical personal from many different international medical groups trying to stem the tide of the epidemic and find a way of controlling it.

Parsons muses on the young medical personnel who unhesitating throw their bodies and their energies into the fight against this mortal enemy:
Brave men and women who rushed into battle would flee from the onset of disease. Disease was more powerful than armies. Disease was more arbitrary than terrorism. Disease was crueler than human imagination. And yet young people like these doctors were willing to stand in the way of the most fatal force that nature has to offer.
But now they, too, were dead.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian driver who had taken Parsons to the camp and who we realize is probably now infected, has left for Saudi Arabia. He's going on Hajj. He will soon be mingling with thousands of people from around the world. When Parsons realizes this, he determines to go to Mecca to find the driver and get him into isolation. Now, this is where the plot began to go off the rails for me. Why would Parsons himself go? Aren't the Saudi Arabian authorities fully capable of finding this needle in a haystack?

And once he gets to Saudi Arabia and makes them aware of the problem, the decision is made to shut down Mecca, and all those thousands of pilgrims are trapped there far from home, Parsons along with them.

Then through a convoluted series of events, Parsons ends up on an American submarine headed home, but it looks like in addition to the now spreading pandemic, World War III is about to break out beginning in the Middle East and the submarine is being shadowed by Russian ships. And it all just gets too complicated. 

By this time, the pandemic has spread around the world, deaths are mounting by the thousands, and governments - most especially the United States government - are not coping well and possibly even making things worse than they have to be.

Yep, a story ripped right out of today's headlines including the propensity of many to readily accept the most outrageous conspiracy theories regarding the new virus. 
These fantasies were promulgated in social media, led by Russian bots and amplified by internet rumor-mongers stirring strife by remote control, urging people to take to the streets when they had been warned repeatedly to shelter at home. 
"Eerily prescient" indeed. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


     

Comments

  1. I like his nonfiction a lot. I hope I like this book when it arrives for me one of these days.

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    1. I would be interested to read your thoughts on the book.

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  2. I doubt I would want to read this right now but it does sound good.

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    1. I can understand your reluctance, but, as it turned out, I did find quite a bit to like about the book, even though in the end it was a disappointment in some ways.

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  3. Your link for your review of The Cuckoo's Calling didn't work. I was so disappointed. I wanted to read what you said in your review. I couldn't search your blog because I couldn't find the search widget on your side bar. Come on back and give me a good link. Thanks. My Friday quotes

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    1. I see you did finally find it. Thanks for visiting my blog.

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  4. This does sound a bit like déjà vu all over again! I suspect that this pandemic has more in store for us yet to come.

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    1. The course of the pandemic in the book very much follows what has actually happened, which just goes to show that the scientists did indeed know how all of this would play out and they were yelling about it at least three years ago - actually much earlier than that. So when you hear some benighted politician claim "No one could have predicted..." in fact they could and did.

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    2. I recommend David Quammen's book "The Spillover." I was thrilled to see him interviewed by Anderson Cooper recently. Quammen, for my money, is perhaps the finest science writer in a generation, certainly in America. If you have never read "Song of the Dodo" you absolutely must.

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    3. I know of Quammen although I haven't read him, but I'm putting him on my list.

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  5. I probably would have abandoned the book, although much of my young adult reading was done in the SF genre, where character development is secondary to development of the idea driving the book. I am not familiar with Lawrence Wright. Not yet, anyway.

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    1. As I indicated, the best parts of Wright's book (for me, at least) were the "idea" parts, the factual exposition parts, and obviously that is his strong point.

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  6. I wondered how Wright would do with fiction. You found what I expect to find in that regard. But I will read it eventually for the info.

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    1. I'll be interested to learn your impressions of the book.

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  7. Never heard of this author but I know there's no way I could read this one. At least not now, I couldn't handle the subject matter at this point in time.

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  8. I really want to read this. I like plague books I’m general. As you point out, this one sounds prescient. It also seems like it tries to be realistic. A lot of such books, while good, do not seem very plausible.

    Viruses are such fascinating things. I may read more non fiction about them.

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    1. I think you will probably like it, Brian. The informational part of the book is well-written and easy to follow and as you say, viruses are indeed fascinating. One might even say elegant in their single purpose.

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  9. I think you had similar thoughts on it as I did. The story & characters are a bit flat or bumbling ... but some of the info in it made it interesting enough to pick up. He kills off some of the characters so abruptly ... it was like whaa???? (Jill & her sister's family) ... just when you start identifying with them, you're left with straws, that they're gone in a sec. a bit of a horror show too of body parts ... I guess that's how it might be

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    1. Obviously his long suit is nonfiction. His fiction chops need a bit of work.

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