_ Journalist Lawrence Wright brings his considerable skills to bear
in this novel about a pandemic, written before our current crisis
, Penguin Random House
_The End of October
Penguin Random House
In early March, when everything was teetering from slightly weird to
very weird, I sought out a strange form of comfort: _Station Eleven
_the Emily St. John Mandel novel about a pandemic that kills 99
percent of the earth's population.
The plot was oddly calming as the world began to slowly shut down, and
the airplanes I traveled from campaign event to campaign event
suddenly became far less crowded and far more tense.
Once our own real-life pandemic took full hold, I found myself unable
to read more than five pages of any other genre. I tried escapist
fantasy, biography, history, only to toss each book back to the bottom
of the nightstand before picking up and devouring the O.G. pandemic
novel: Albert Camus' _The Plague_.
Stories about mysterious viruses has always fascinated and excited me
— something I trace back to one of the first "grown up" novels I
remember reading as a kid: Michael Crichton's _Andromeda Strain_. But
now, as the world endures its biggest outbreak in a century, these
stories provide a strange mix of catharsis ("I felt the SAME way that
character did!" — and relief ("Welp, at least things are nowhere
near THAT bad!").
So, as I steamed through the final chapters of _The Plague_, I was
excited to see that one of my favorite nonfiction writers of all time,
Lawrence Wright, had written a timely — creepily timely — new
novel about an overwhelming and deadly virus that sweeps around the
_The End of October_ is more Clancy than Camus: a fast-paced thriller
with big, sweeping, made-for-the-adapted-screenplay action sequences,
but populated by one-dimensional walking resumes who speak in
paragraph-long expository chunks. There are submarine chases that
channel Tom Clancy's _The Hunt For Red October, _and silver-haired,
umlauted ecoterrorists who remind you of Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond
But given Wright's journalistic track record — he won a Pulitzer
Prize for _The Looming Tower, _in my mind the best book written about
the 9/11 terror attacks — that clunky expository dialogue is the
unexpected star of the novel. Wright clearly did his homework
researching this book, and given his reporting background, couldn't
resist sharing every fact about pandemics, infectious diseases, public
health planning, government disaster contingencies and vaccines that
he dug up. And while in other times, it might come across as forced
and clunky, we readers are currently in the market for exactly that:
Every single fact a great reporter like Wright has learned about
If they all come couched in sometimes-awkward writing, it's no
problem! After all, it's hard to criticize characters for continually
working facts about the 1918 flu pandemic into every conversation,
when we're all doing the exact same thing.
_The End of October _follows Henry Parsons, a high-ranking CDC
official, as he tries to contain a mysterious and deadly new pathogen.
Parsons fits the familiar archetype of thriller heroes: He's
incredibly confident, competent, and experienced, and can always see
several steps ahead of everyone else he interacts with.
Unlike Jack Ryan or James Bond, Parsons messes up. He fails to contain
the pathogen. It jumps from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia to the entire
world, and suddenly, millions of people are dead. Infection leads to
recession, and then depression, which leads to a conventional war,
which leads to cyber-attacks and bio warfare. Things escalate quickly,
to quote _Anchorman_.
When the plot is keeping pace with our real-life current events, all
of Wright's expository homework can lead to moments of dark humor for
the reader. There's one dramatic scene in particular that caused me to
laugh out loud: A public health official is in the White House
situation room, dramatically telling a disbelieving vice president
what the United States will have to do to stem the tide of infection:
"We need to urge people to shelter in place," she says, to blank
stares. "Borders closed, sports and entertainment facilities
shuttered, nonemergency cases discharged from the hospitals, schools
closed, public meetings postponed." No one in the room really
understands what she's suggesting — but to us, that's just been life
for the past two months.
As the fictional pathogen gets more and more out of control, and the
plot speeds past our own timeline, Wright's characters become prophets
of doom. I gulped when that same character warns White House officials
how long vaccines can take to be developed and mass-produced, and
sighed every time a character insisted that every single global
pandemic comes back, again and again, in multiple waves.
As the book progresses, it shifts from a timely warning about how
infectious outbreaks can spiral out of control into a much more
conventional thriller. The disease storyline merges with eco- and
cyberterrorism plots, and every escalation becomes far more removed
from reality (so we hope), until the president's eyes are bleeding in
the middle of an Oval Office address, and gangs of orphans are roaming
In this way, it gradually moves from an urgent existential warning to
an escapist entertainment. _The End of October _is the perfect novel
for a long airplane flight or a beach chair. Provided, of course, our
real-life leaders are a bit more effective than Wright's fictional
ones, and we're all once again able to encounter either of those this
Scott Detrow is a political correspondent for NPR. He covers the 2020
presidential campaign and co-hosts the _NPR Politics Podcast_.