Book Review: The End of October a Timely, Viral Cautionary Tale

end of october

What did Lawrence Wright know that we didn’t? Ominous synchronicities, coincidences and flat-out prophecies scatter about the 377 pages of his sophomore novel The End of October, which is about nothing less than a global pandemic that descends on the United States in terrifying numbers, roughly beginning in March.

A scene in the deepest bowels of government, with the virus newly detected in one American city, suggests a plot development that, in the distant past of 2019, would have struck the American reader as hyperbolic and farfetched. “As much as possible, we need to urge people to shelter in place,” an expert says. “It would be best to announce it this morning so that preparations can be made—the National Guard called up, police reinforced, borders closed, sports and entertainment facilities shuttered, nonemergency cases discharged from hospitals, schools closed, public meetings postponed, and the government shut down.”

Later, a health expert anticipates a severe ventilator shortage and bemoans an empty national stockpile of essential medicines: “We’re running out of syringes, diagnostic test kits, gloves, respirators, antiseptics…”

The End of October is not an alternative history so much as an alternative present. Wright never mentions Trump or Pence by name in his nightmare scenario, but he doesn’t need to. Easy potshots at the sizable girth of “the president” feel a little tacky—Wright noshing on low-hanging political fruit—but they recede into the background. This isn’t a narrative that takes place largely in the halls of Washington; it’s a global adventure story of a single man chasing an unseen enemy, a journey that takes him from the virus’ initial spread in a refugee camp in Indonesia to the hajj in Mecca to a military submarine and beyond.

That hero—who doubles, in a nifty twist, as its antihero—is Dr. Henry Parsons, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC, this book’s equivalent of Dr. Anthony Fauci, with a diminutive stature to match. His body misshapen by childhood rickets, he hobbles around with a cane, but his booming voice belies his slight frame, commanding the attention of hordes of acolytes in the public-health arena.

When a mysterious flu virus that will soon bear the name Kongoli is discovered in the Indonesian camp, Henry is promptly dispatched to the African nation, where he encounters a scene so vividly written as to be nearly nauseating, culminating with Henry scissoring open the breastplate of a corpse amid a roiling monsoon. Wright paints a picture of Henry as a man with the kind of love-hate relationship with disease that only a committed virologist could share, and all of the book’s incongruous romanticism comes from his perspective. He refers to influenza as “beautiful.” Projecting his perspective, Wright adds that “among diseases, Ebola was a diva—dramatic, sudden and vicious.” And there’s this: “All his professional life, Henry had imagined that he would rendezvous with a disease that was more clever than he, more relentless, more pitiless. There was a game to it, a match.”

Wright is most known for his nonfiction and journalism; his book Going Clear should have pretty much closed the book on Scientology as anything more than a predatory cult. And there’s plenty of investigative asides in The End of October too—fascinating page-long detours into the history of diseases from antiquity to the 1918 Spanish flu to smallpox, polio and more, grounding the story in a frightening and pitiless history. Regarding that 1918 flu we’ve been hearing so much about on the news, Wright says, “Some victims were fine at lunch and dead by dinner. Lungs dissolved into a bloody froth.”

This is Wright’s comfort zone—more so than his dialogue, which often sounds tin-eared and expository, lacking the authentic cadences of everyday conversation. Characters speak like they’re conveying information in an action thriller, betraying, perhaps, Wright’s history as a screenwriter. The “germ of the story,” as Wright explains in his acknowledgements, came from the filmmaker Ridley Scott, and indeed, it’s easy to imagine Wright’s cinematic writing translating swiftly to the big screen.

As the narrative wends toward its final act, the grim, relentless dominoes of the disease’s gut-punching wrath may be too much for some readers. Surreal scenes snowball page by page, as Wright weaves plausible geopolitical aftershocks into his story, including war in the Middle East and a Russian plot to disable the U.S. electrical grid when our nation is at its most vulnerable. All the while, wracked by guilt for reasons that take hundreds of pages to fully manifest, Henry’s complex protagonist grounds the story in palpable human feeling.

COVID-19, alas, does not even approach the apocalyptic fervor created by the Kongoli flu, which makes Wright’s cautionary tale oddly comforting. We are not facing barren supermarkets and $24 cartons of black-market ice cream, as Henry’s wife Jill discovers in their decimated Atlanta neighborhood. Citizens are not seeing “commandeered FedEx and UPS trucks … serv[ing] as death carts, which ferried the dead to the mass graves that were hastily dug in city parks.” We still have our pets, our internet, some of our jobs.

For now, anyway.

The End of October is in local bookstores now.


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