“The End of October,” by Lawrence Wright; Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pages, $28
When news of the coronavirus, and the virus itself, began to spread in January, and the seriousness of the threat became manifest, I thought about “The End of October.” Lawrence Wright’s new thriller about a global pandemic that threatens humanity’s future was only scheduled for release in May, but a few weeks earlier I had read an advance copy of the book. I had been entertained, shocked, shaken.
Wright is a polymath. He made his reputation as a journalist covering the Middle East – his book “The Looming Tower,” about the rise of Al-Qaida, won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 – but he is a boundary breaker, who has been known to adapt his reporting for the stage and screen. A New Yorker article about Gaza during the second intifada morphed into a one-man play, “The Human Scale,” starring Wright himself (which he brought to Tel Aviv in 2011). Another piece, a profile of the director-screenwriter Paul Haggis and his experience escaping the Church of Scientology, became a book, “Going Clear,” and then a HBO documentary of the same name.
Just as we shouldn’t be surprised that Wright chose the fiction genre to portray the dangers that a previously unknown virus could constitute to an unprepared world, we also could have expected that his story would be credible, and based on the latest biological and epidemiological information available.
So believably horrifying is “The End of October” – Wright’s 12th book, but only his second novel – that I initially assumed that Alfred A. Knopf would delay its publication until the worst of the coronavirus crisis had passed. The publisher is known for combining good taste with commercial savvy, and I thought it would want to avoid being seen as exploiting a crisis to sell books. It also was by no means clear that consumers would be clamoring to read something that cuts so close to the bone while we’re still in the thick of it.
Knopf, however, reasoned otherwise, and “The End of October” will be available to the public April 28 – even earlier than originally planned. Having revisited the novel in recent weeks, I can testify that reading it in the shadow of COVID-19 is a very different experience than when a pandemic was still theoretical. So visceral was its effect that I could have believed that I was reading a pumped-up, virtual-reality edition. Not only that: If in December, Wright’s book had read like an uncomfortably realistic horror story, now the effect was more meaningful, with every turn in the plot feeling like it carried a personal message. I will even go out on a limb and say that this is the book you need to read this spring.
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The unlikely hero of “The End of October” is Dr. Henry Parsons, a senior virologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. A childhood disease left Henry with a limp and a poor self-image. He also carries around a number of emotional traumas that have left him with large doses of compassion and guilt. Henry is tormented, but his torment only makes him a more conscientious scientist and loving husband and father.
When the book begins, he is in Geneva at a World Health Organization conference that’s already been interrupted with news of a horrific terrorist attack in Rome. Just before the assembly disperses, one of the presenters describes the outbreak of a bizarrely lethal disease that has just occurred in an Indonesian refugee camp. The details set off alarm bells for Henry, who rejects the speaker’s proposed diagnosis, and he allows himself to be coaxed in delaying his return to Atlanta by two days for a quick hop to Jakarta. There he will obtain samples from the victims to bring back to the CDC for analysis.
Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan. When Henry arrives at the Kongoli camp in West Java, he finds the bodies of three doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières who had preceded him there to treat the camp’s afflicted inmates. He sends his driver, Bambang, to wait for him outside the camp while he suits up to perform a dangerous autopsy on a victim. When he emerges a week later, however, having isolated himself after his exposure to what he is now convinced is a virus, he learns that his driver is no longer available. Bambang has left the country – in order to fulfill a lifelong commitment to perform the hajj.
What better way to launch a global pandemic than by gathering 2 million devout Muslims from every corner of the Earth in Mecca, and then dropping into their midst an unknowing carrier of the virus?
Henry takes off for Saudi Arabia, in hope of tracking down Bambang before he infects his fellow Muslims, but he is too late. Fortunately, Henry is friends with the country’s health minister, who also belongs to the royal family, and he convinces him of the need to seal the country’s borders. This act will doom countless numbers of pilgrims trapped in Mecca, but hopefully will spare the rest of the world’s population from exposure to the Kongoli virus, as it has now been dubbed. That doesn’t turn out so well, either.
Big bad Vlad
I have revealed only a tiny fraction of the story, which has many subplots that involve additional, if more conventional, threats to the future of the human race. Suffice it to say that the Kongoli virus doesn’t serve to bring Earth’s nation-states together, but instead exacerbates already existing tensions. Even before the crisis in the novel, the Saudis have been close to outright war with Iran, which has restarted its nuclear weapons program. An extremely low infection rate in Russia leads to suspicions that Kongoli was cooked up in a lab and unleashed on the world by a Vladimir Putin even more malicious than the real-life leader. The U.S. president remains unnamed, but he shares many characteristics with the current occupant of the White House, and responds to the crisis not so differently than the latter has dealt with COVID-19.
Some of the book’s subplots seem unnecessary. One involves an American national security official – a bland Jewish woman who is certain that Putin is the greatest threat to world peace, and who uses her position to set in motion a plan that I was unable to make sense of. More successful but a little melodramatic for my taste was the character of Jürgen Stark, a silver-haired former mentor of Henry’s at the U.S. Army’s biowarfare lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, who, when they meet up again years later, tells Henry that the choice before them is “to save the Earth or to allow humanity to continue to wreck it.” And since, from his point of view, “the termite and the human, they are equal,” his preference is to save the planet.
With the appropriate experience, brilliant analytical skills, and realistic understanding that he is humanity’s last great hope, Henry throws himself into doing whatever he can to try to outwit the virus. At the same time, he wants nothing more than to return home to his beloved wife, Jill, and their two children. But with most of the planet on lockdown, the best he can do is conduct video chats with them, until even that is not possible.
Wright pivots between Henry’s superhuman, globe-spanning efforts and Jill’s struggle back in Atlanta, where she tries to protect her family and not be overcome with resentment at Henry for leaving her to face the crisis on her own.
When Henry does finally return to the United States, it is summer and before the cold weather, when a second round of Kongoli is expected to hit. Already, though, it is a very different country than the one he left a half-year earlier. He hitches a ride on a single-engine plane from the Kings Bay naval base on the Georgia coast back to Atlanta. Flying over the state, he sees “no traffic on the roads, and the fields were fallow. Henry thought that this is how Georgia must have looked when the Creek Indians lived there. … Nature [was] already reclaiming the marks of civilization on the land.”
“The End of October” is a book about human responsibility. That responsibility is organized in concentric circles, the innermost of which is our obligation to ourselves and our families, reaching out to our communities and our countries, and then to humanity and all of creation. Sometimes taking responsibility for one requires sacrificing another, and the right choice will not always be apparent at the time a decision must be made.
The stakes faced by the characters in Wright’s novel are as high as they come, as the author imagines a cascade of disasters that touch every aspect of human life. But, at the risk of sounding alarmist, I read “The End of October” as a reminder that the stakes we face today – as individuals, as societies and as components of nature – are no less grave. However unthinkable some of the scenarios he proposes may have seemed years or even months ago, today we know that they are present and possible.
You will lose sleep if you read “The End of October.” But as you lie awake with your thoughts over several nights, you might consider what you will tell your grandchildren when they ask where you were when so much hung in the balance. And whether you are doing your part now to leave a world that our grandchildren will be able to inhabit.