The Booky Man: Plague Upon Your Houses

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Undecided on that flu shot? Read Thomas Mullen. You’ll be ready to stand in line for a vaccination.

Atlanta-based Mullen’s debut novel, The Last Town on Earth, came out with Random House in 2006. It tells of Commonwealth, an idealistic community founded among the Douglas firs and redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, and its troubles during the great epidemic of Spanish influenza that killed 100 million people worldwide in 1917-1918.

Victims of the Spanish flu didn’t die pretty. Mullen describes sick room walls spattered with blood from coughing fits, people turned black from oxygen deprivation, fevers so high they burned the lives out of even the strongest men—lumberjacks and blacksmiths and mill workers—in a single night.

The author bases a great deal of his gripping novel on similar historical fact. Mullen learned, for instance, that during the great flu epidemic a few American communities sealed themselves off from the world in an effort to stop flu germs at the edge of town.

In The Last Town On Earth, civic leaders quarantine fictional Commonwealth, posting guards on all the roads to prevent travelers from bringing in the disease.

Mullen’s novel explores the complications of such an effort to stop a pandemic during wartime and in an age of turbulent politics. He adroitly captures a time and place lost to us now for 90 years, but disturbingly relevant today. Commonwealth presents a microcosm of fears, complications and social unrest we could possibly face with a new outbreak of contagious disease.

Swine flu, for instance.

Our last decades of life on this planet have been plagued—and that is the right word—with the worrisome creativity of our planet’s tiniest living things … if viruses really are alive, a question debated by scientists.

Alive or not, viruses in the last 25 years have shown us what evolution is really all about. We’ve witnessed infinitesimally small bugs morphing into forms that brought deadly outbreaks of AIDS, monkey pox, SARS (carried by prairie dogs, of all things), ebola, dengue fever, bird flu, and now—this year’s model—swine flu, or the H1N1 virus.

This onslaught challenges the best minds of modern medicine. Happily these minds often prove mightier than mindless virus.

In my own lifetime, I recall the terror of diseases that now have been mastered.

Smallpox, the great killer of its day, now only exists in a few high-security vials in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. Lockjaw doesn’t create the dread it did in my youth. And an empty swimming pool in midsummer a few years back meant polio, a word that once set off a thunderclap of fear in any room where the word was spoken. I personally knew schoolmates and relatives that went away to live in a fearsome thing called an iron lung. If they came back at all, they returned with withered limbs and steel crutches.

Thomas Mullen’s novel of a world assaulted by such pestilence feels uncomfortably modern. The writer’s prescience (or at least his good literary luck) is uncanny—the book arrived in bookstores a year or two before our pandemic worry over swine flu, back in the days when H1N1 was just a glimmer in some Duroc’s wet eye.

This winter, The Last Town on Earth should be required.

Like that flu shot.

Charles McNair is Paste‘s books editor. His novel Land o’ Goshen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.