Sunday, January 29, 2012

Disposable People

© 1980 by Marshall Goldberg and Kenneth Kay

I was planning to launch this review with a ebullient and loud-shouted, “I loved reading this book!” but, realizing I just read a 316-page novel about a national epidemic that horribly slays 20 million people, something didn’t feel right. So let me simply state this was a Great Guilty Pleasure. That’s right, two capital Gs and a capital P.

Now, Disposable People ain’t no timeless work of art, indeed it is all but forgotten today, but I read it as a youngling and it left an impression. In fact, it was my first medical thriller (of the half-dozen or so I’ve read over my lifetime). Way back in 1980 I recall racing through it, enjoying every page, every disgusting description of etiological mayhem savored, every crack in the fiber of society incredulously awestriking. Truth be told, though, I too all but forgot it, until I stumbled across it online recently, and had to purchase it via my online book store.

It is remarkably truly a product of its time. Envision those 70s disaster movies. That’s Disposable People. “Starring Jimmy Stewart as The President!” “Shelly Winters as Miss Dalrymple!” “Martin Balsam as Dr. Henry Gault!” You get the drift. It’s also filled with glorious politically incorrect jaw-droppers. There’s a disparaging gay slur early on and more than a few instances of sexism that would never be published today, even in a work of fiction. The men are all He-Men, all tops in their field, be it medical, military, or political, and all wield six-packs and bed the sex-hungry women that surround them.

All while combatting the most lethal epidemic since the Yellow Fever of the early 20th century. Consolvo’s Ulceration, it’s called, and it’s a nasty piece of sickness. Once infected, any cut on your skin immediately festers, growing in length and width at nearly observable speeds, rotting your body while you’re still alive. It’s painful, putrid, and a forty-eight hour death sentence, forty-seven hours of which are pure torment. There’s no cure, but there is a vaccination. Unfortunately, the vaccination causes a sped-up-on-steroids flare-up of Consolvo’s Ulceration in ten percent of those taking it.

Like those 70s disaster movies, we take a global, high-level view just as frequently as we get the man-on-the-street vignette. The President, a Lincolnesque southerner name of Lloyd Dobson, is a main character, as are the Secretary of State and Attorney General. Then, trickling downward to mere mortals like you and I, you have generals, ambassadors, industrialists, doctors of all stripes, scientists of all flavors, teevee personalities good and evil, assorted military personnel, public officials, migrant workers, poor Mexicans, and even Death Row convicts.

The hero is lone wolf doctor hunk Noah Blanchard, dashing bachelor who’s the best epidemiologist on the planet, hopping the hot spots of the globe, a Colonel is the Air Force and an avid fisherman. You know, our Ideal Vision of Manliness, c. 1979. Noah is drafted by the President at the recommendation of a too-fat and too-old Surgeon General, tasked with the impossible task of beating the Ulceration and saving the United States. After hooking up with an up-and-coming newslady (a walking, talking amalgam of the power politics of 70s women’s lib), Noah begins a wrenching journey to find the cause – and ultimately, the cure – of the disease. Course, it doesn’t hurt that coincidence landed him right at ground zero of the outbreak.

I kid, but I liked it a lot. It was a very readable novel, though not without mistakes. Epidemic armageddon was better done in Stephen King’s The Stand, a target Goldberg aims for but doesn’t quite hit. In the middle of the book there are a couple pages detailing the fates of various individuals as civilization collapses around them, something King did much better, and I wish Goldberg incorporated more frequently in People. If I wrote the thing, I’d pepper the first half of the novel with little tragedies, and salt the final half with scenes of resourceful survivors and what they had to do to survive, no matter how grim.

A few more nits to pick. For a book written by a doctor, I expected a bit more medical stuff – terminology, pathology, a little Cliff Notes version of the phenomenon of epidemics. There’s a little bit at the beginning and some stuff at the end, but the majority of the novel focuses on the political – and geopoltiical – angle. And speaking of the end, I found the “cure,” which had to be tricked out of a schizophrenic virologist, inexplicably cheap. Say, for example, you write a whole book about a car that won’t start, and on the second-to-last page, someone says, “Gee, Bob, didja put the key in it?” And you slap your head, insert the key, and start the car. The End.

Still, a worthy read. Though I forgot the title and the author for decades, several scenes remained with me. The image of movement within the wound of a victim still gives me chills when I think about it today. Scenes of desolation in the southwest as well as the hunt for the carrier – patient zero – also never really left my mind. All in all, I’m glad I was able to go back in time and revisit these pages again.

Grade: A-minus.

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