“The Plague Year” by Lawrence Wright; Alfred A. Knopf (336 pages, $28)
What hath Lawrence Wright wrought? For decades the New Yorker staff writer has churned out high-caliber journalism; his six acclaimed books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower,” an enthralling account of the Sept. 11 plot. Wright’s also a playwright, a novelist and performs in a blues band.
His lean-limbed, immersive new work, “The Plague Year,” revisits 2020 in all of its pandemic-fueled drama. Wright tracks back through the fog to Wuhan, China, sifting through the zoologic leap (or leaps) from bats to humans.
He translates the complexities of epidemiology into plain English, as in his take on the virus’ spike protein: “The surprising thing about COVID-19 is that it seems to have been an uncannily successful human disease from the start, binding a thousandfold more tightly to the ACE2 receptors than did SARS,” the 2003 disease that ravaged east Asia.
Early on, the implications of the outbreak became evident to Wuhan scientists and physicians, and government officials imposed a communications blackout.
This did not deter the clinicians: “Some highly inventive dissidents rewrote the interview to get around the censors,” Wright observes, “using emojis, Morse code, Braille and even Sindarin, the fictional language spoken by elves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit books.”
One intrepid scientist smuggled the virus’ sequenced genome into an American databank, spurring vaccine development. A triage doctor, Li Wenliang, spoke out about the rising tide of death; he became a martyr to the Chinese people after he succumbed to the disease.
Chapter by stellar chapter, Wright charts COVID-19’s arc. He highlights polarities within our politics, as embodied by a recalcitrant President Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the go-to epidemiologist who flipped his views on mask-wearing as data flowed in: “COVID-19 told us more about these two men than any other individuals in the country. For Fauci, science was a self-correcting compass always pointed at the truth. For Trump, the truth was Play-Doh, and he could twist it to fit the shape of his desire.”
Wright is at his commanding best, though, when he places the pandemic in historical context — his detours into the Black Plague and the 1918 Spanish flu are narrative marvels — and in his portraits of the players.
Deborah Birx comes off as surprisingly sympathetic. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, was instrumental in funneling personal protective equipment to desperate governors and jump-starting Operation Warp Speed, which led to breakthrough vaccines.
Shi Zhengli, a Wuhan virologist known as China’s “Bat Woman,” discovered hundreds of novel coronaviruses among bats in a single mine; Wright probes her role in the ongoing debate around “lab escape.”
He threads “The Plague Year” with delightful transatlantic calls to Gianna Pomata, a former Johns Hopkins professor now retired to her hometown of Bologna. Pomata has long studied the transformative impacts of pandemics on economies and social orders.
She sees a silver lining in COVID-19, noting, with Italian brio and humor, that innovations evolve from global calamities. One could say the same about Wright’s arresting book, birthed by a plague year but rich with peerless reportage and incisive critique.
Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for the Star Tribune, Oprah Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.