About halfway through Lawrence Wright’s thriller The End of October, the president is addressing the nation during a dire world crisis. But something is distracting from his momentous announcement: “The president’s eyes were bleeding.”
Now, that’s an attention-grabber. Whether you are still reading by that point, however, may depend on your psychological capacity during these times, considering the novel’s cruelly timely setting: A global coronavirus pandemic.
Wright is the author of deeply researched nonfiction exposes like Going Clear, on Scientology, and The Looming Tower, on the rise of al-Qaeda in the years before 9-11. As shown above, he brings a gift for intense, sometimes graphic scenes, as well as a knack for technical exposition that’s enlightening without being overpowering. Throw in a queasiness-inducing cover by renowned designer Chip Kidd, and you have an intelligent beach read for whenever the beaches open up again. You just have to prepare yourself for a story that eerily tracks our real-life scenario.
The End of October opens in Geneva on some unspecified date (the book’s biggest flaw is the lack of an actual timeline building toward “the end of October”). Nerves are already on edge because of a terrorist attack in Rome when we meet Henry Parsons, a virologist trying to escape the last day of a conference on infectious diseases, when he is fatefully sidetracked. As a favor, he goes to retrieve samples from a mysterious and fatal, but allegedly contained, outbreak at a refugee camp in Indonesia.
Henry was supposed to be winging it back to his family in Atlanta, where he works for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Instead, he goes to the Kongoli camp, which turns out to be an internment camp for gay Muslims, and realizes he has stepped into a hot zone of raging hemorrhagic fever and contorted corpses. The body of a doctor who perished of the unknown malady has a “spumy swamp” where her lungs used to be.
He suspects the disease that has infested the hot zone is “a coronavirus like SARS or MERS…” (October was written before COVID-19 was a gleam in an undercooked bat’s beady eye.) The disease takes the logical name Kongoli, after the camp where it was discovered. That’s a reminder that you are reading fiction; no one calls Parsons racist for naming the virus after the place it originated.
In the section dealing with Mecca, Wright handles the fraught and complicated systems of Islam respectfully but without reverence, as the virus initially spreads among the three million Muslims undertaking the pilgrimage, or hajj. One can imagine a Manhattan copy editor’s red pen nervously atwitch.
Dr. Parsons must rack his brain in a race against an unstoppable contagion with a 70 percent fatality rate. The virus decimates Congress, kills two Supreme Court justices, and reaches into the White House. At least one famous pop star perishes.
A barter economy emerges, with everything for sale. Backyards become cemeteries; people wander the streets in shock, “crumpled by grief,” while “actors in Disney costumes” parade by a newly erected orphanage. To get home, Henry must endure a grim journey employing submarines, dhows, and hitchhiking, while unsure of what he’ll find when he gets back to Atlanta.
One is constantly being borne back into the present pandemic. There are gloves and masks and sheltering in place, “cytokine storms” and 14-day quarantines. We are all epidemiologists now, which makes it hard to untangle the effectiveness of Wright’s storytelling from the tendency to see how the plot matches our current crisis. I actually flipped through looking for charts.
On another plot track, a Washington Post reporter is being blackmailed by a Russia-obsessed national security cog named Tildy Nichinsky, who finds herself a presidential advisor when things begin trending toward hell. Threats of bio-war emerge, something Henry knows more about than he wishes, adding to his viral load of guilt.
The geopolitical portions of The End of October aren’t too compelling and feel like a distraction from the virus plot, no doubt due to current events. But the scenes aboard the Navy sub are convincingly claustrophobic as the virus spreads through the cramped confines.
Wright reminds us of his lefty credentials with some chiding about “climate change,” but it’s at least integrated into the story, and there’s a lurking eco-terrorist for balance. Henry’s character leans a bit too selfless and guilt-ridden—as a vegetarian obliged to eat chicken soup, he “quietly thanked the chicken for its sacrifice.” His tormented past verges on reductive.
Still, Wright navigates the genre like an expert. A line about a museum’s animal exhibit that seems a throwaway detail has haunting resonance, one of several ideas seeded early on that bloom later, to potent effect. October is an epic constrained within a conventionally sized thriller, but there’s still room for poignant, Station Eleven-style moments.
Some surprising character arcs grace the tale with the contingent feel of real life. Each is handled with care, even the ones who get a turn and depart a page later, one way or another.
In another era—say, six months ago—The End of October would have been considered can’t-miss movie material. However, October will not qualify as escapism for quite a while, unless one counts the sweaty relief one feels that the direst parts haven’t come to pass.