Timely books are often described as “ripped from the headlines.” But Lawrence Wright’s new novel, The End of October, scooped the headlines with its tense tale of a fast-moving pandemic and the cascade of political and human costs it brings.
An advance review copy of the book landed on my desk in January, which means it was finished and edited last year. Wright wrote in a March column for the New York Times that the basic idea for the story came from a conversation he had with director Ridley Scott years ago about Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road. “What happened?” Scott asked, to reduce civilization to rubble in that book.
Wright, a New Yorker staff writer and the author of such nonfiction books as God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, thought about Scott’s question. He did the same kind of deep and wide-ranging research that makes his nonfiction so compelling and authoritative.
And then he wrote a thriller about a swashbuckling scientist chasing the origins of a plague.
The novel begins with a pompous health official in a conference session in Geneva reporting on an “unusual cluster of adolescent fatalities in a refugee camp in Indonesia.” Forty-seven dead of acute hemorrhagic fever. Not a significant incident, the speaker says, except for the unusual detail of the victims’ youth.
If you know anything about thrillers, you know Dr. Arrogant is wrong. Fortunately, Henry Parsons is in the audience to tell him so.
The deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Henry is legendary for his work on such epidemics as Ebola virus. He’s “short and slight,” but a commanding speaker. “In the never-ending war on emerging diseases,” Wright writes, “Henry Parsons was not a small man; he was a giant.” (If you are picturing Dr. Anthony Fauci after reading that description, you’re not alone. And Brad Pitt can play him in the movie!)
Henry is eager to get back to Atlanta to his wife, Jill, and their kids, Helen and Teddy. But his friend Maria Savona, director of epidemiology for the World Health Organization, asks him to just swing by that refugee camp in Indonesia on the way home to pick up tissue samples from the dead for further study. Easy peasy.
In Indonesia, Henry discovers that the Kongoli refugee camp is used to segregate gay men, most of them HIV positive. It is crowded and squalid, and there are far more than 47 dead. Among them are three young volunteer doctors who found standard treatments useless against the disease, whatever it is.
The good news is that it seems to be contained, and teams from the CDC and WHO swarm the camp. But after he comes out of a weeklong quarantine, Henry realizes that his driver, Bambang Idris, who entered the camp with him and was exposed to the virus, has boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia. He is making the hajj, the religious pilgrimage required of devout Muslims — and he is one among 3 million walking together to Mecca.
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Finding him might seem impossible, but Henry has a powerful friend in Saudi Arabia. Prince Majid is a member of the large Saudi royal family, and he’s also a doctor and head of the Health Ministry. But the virus is already spreading, and Majid’s attempt to quarantine all of Mecca fails, loosing the pandemic around the globe.
As travel bans leave Henry stuck in Saudi Arabia for weeks and thousands, then millions die of what is now called Kongoli virus, Wright shifts the focus to Washington, D.C. A ruthless official from Homeland Security, Tildy Nichinsky, is weaving a web to increase her power in the White House.
Years before, Tildy had been a foreign service officer in Russia and gotten to know Vladimir Putin, and she considers him the nation’s greatest enemy. She hates Fancy Bear, a group of “spiky-haired punks” who execute his cyberattacks, and hates Putin even more. It’s easy for her to assume Kongoli is a bioweapon aimed at Americans and that Putin is behind it.
Tildy’s is hardly the only conspiracy theory. Others, “led by Russian bots and amplified by internet rumor-mongers,” speculate that the virus was designed to target Christians, or Muslims, or gay people — even though its death toll includes all categories.
In some chapters, Wright follows Jill and the children in Atlanta as they deal with a crumbling world. After a first wave of deaths, cities reopen their schools and businesses. A second wave of the virus arrives, accompanied by antibiotic-resistant pneumonia, and the death rate soars.
After a secret attempt to use an experimental vaccine on top administration officials goes terribly awry, the government goes underground, literally. Chaos descends; wars break out. Henry, meanwhile, is traveling back to the United States via submarine.
Why, you might ask, would you want to read about a fictional pandemic while you’re living through a real one? Like all good thrillers, The End of October diverts us from the real world while keeping a firm base there, letting us imagine not only disaster but the ways out of it.
Wright also packs the book with fascinating factual information about past pandemics and how humanity weathered them. Many of the details he imagines for the Kongoli crisis are on the nose for COVID-19, such as massive shortages of medical supplies for testing and treatment.
But there’s also a bit of comfort in this: In the book, a lot of things are much worse than they are in real life right now. And it offers a highly competent but flawed hero — Henry has secrets, some of them shocking — who might just save the day.
The End of October
By Lawrence Wright
Knopf, 400 pages, $27.95