When my turn came to pick for book club, I chose Sigrid Nunez’ The Friend almost at random. Okay, I chose it because there was a Great Dane on the cover. Also a reassuring gold seal: It had won the 2019 National Book Award. Still, I opened the novel with trepidation—I have picked some doozies, and it is only because the book club’s members are friends that they keep me.
I fell instantly in love with the novel. Nunez is capable of sharp sarcasm (her targets this time: the literary establishment, predatory male professors, pretentious writers) and deep compassion. Feminist to the core (“Tempted to put too much faith in the great male mind, remember this It looked at cats and declared them gods. It looked at women and asked, Are they human? And, once that hard nut had been cracked, But do they have souls?”), she is a lucid, sensitive, thoughtful writer with a wry sense of humor. The Friend was her breakaway bestseller; she had reached the age of sixty-seven studiously avoiding publicity. I immediately asked the library for all her previous books.
The first to arrive was Salvation City, and I dove in without even bothering to read the flyleaf. On page eight, I read, “The illness had damaged his brain. He was not the only one to whom this had happened. It happened to many other people as well. It happened to the president of the United States.” For the next twelve pages, a middle-schooler describes, with a kid’s clear-eyed candor, the evangelical minister who has taken him in. Then, on page twenty, I read: “During the pandemic people weren’t allowed to travel anywhere unless they absolutely had to.” Page twenty-three: “The new school was not really much of an adventure. Until everyone started getting sick.” The details flow fast after that: minibottles of sanitizer, supplies running out, the first wave that killed mostly old people, the second wave that killed the boy’s parents.
I kept reading, because sleep was no longer possible. Nunez’s details were pinpoint: the public health official warning the kids about parallels to the Great Flu of 1918; the minister warning that “there is no way you can count on the government” and that even “fine, decent Christian folk” panic and behave erratically. Misinformation and superstitious attempts to ward off the virus (holy basil in this case, not hydroxychloroquine); conspiracy theories (“It had to be terrorism”); the growing number of people “dead set against any vaccine the government came up with.” “Later,” Nunez writes, “many people would say that if the schools had been closed right away, lives might have been saved. But at the time people argued that you couldn’t just close the schools, because so many parents worked. If they had to stay home to take care of their kids, a lot of them would lose income, maybe even their jobs.”
The book was published in 2010 and set in the near future. Nunez had begun writing it in 2006, three years before the H1N1 pandemic broke out. She told an interviewer, “When the swine flu began I was as alarmed as everyone else, and surely more terrified because of all the time I’d just put in imagining the worst.”
Are Americans this predictable? And why do I find it troubling, not reassuring, to find today’s horrors pretold? Reading about the Great Plague of Milan is disconcerting enough, but there are bird-beaked masks and other exotic details to distance the accounts. Films about pandemics are reliably chilling, but they do not echo the current bizarre details of the current landscape the way Nunez did. “Echo” is the wrong word. Prophesy. And her ability to do so means we could have seen it coming—not only the emergence of a deadly zoonotic virus but the specific ways we would respond. I had so hoped this was all an anomaly, an aberration, a glitch.
Salvation City did not make an initial splash. Excellent reviews accumulated after publication, but the two blurbs on the back are from writers I have never heard of and take up less than half of the back cover; the rest is a series of glowing review excerpts for Nunez’s previous book, The Last of Her Kind. Kirkus conceded that Salvation City offered a “not-so-unfathomable scenario”; The New York Times called it “very plausible” and name-checked Camus’s The Plague, which at the time probably seemed a fresh and intriguing analogy. Google Books categorizes Salvation City’s subjects under “fiction,” “science fiction,” “apocalyptic and post-apocalytpic,” and “dystopian.”
Asked about those last two categories, Nunez pointed out that “Salvation City is really about a near apocalypse and a temporary dystopia.” The evangelical Christians hold out hope for the Rapture, but there is also hope, period. Civilization is not wiped out by the pandemic. The world goes on.
In the end, Salvation City is a coming-of-age story. Its focus comes in tight, as Nunez always does, on a single person, in this case a young boy struggling to grow up under extreme circumstances. But ten years later, it is easy to generalize his struggle to an entire country, one that also needs to grow up fast.
“Let’s face it, this is America,” Nunez has someone tell a newscaster. “Anything that’s bad for business, people don’t want to hear.” Another pundit insists that the pandemic “proves what some of us have been saying about America all along: everything is broken.”
And has been for quite some time.