“There have been as many plagues as wars in history,” notes the central character in Albert Camus’s novel “The Plague,” “yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” The surprise is in the epidemic’s egalitarian choice of victims, in the unraveling of civic order and in the discovery that a just God may not be so just after all. This is why an epidemic makes such a great backdrop for a novel.
In “Salvation City,” Sigrid Nunez invokes an influenza pandemic that leaves the United States on the verge of anarchy. We see the disaster through the eyes of a teenage boy, Cole, the only child of liberal parents, a history professor and a lawyer. He has been “raised to believe religion was for retards, . . . that religious education of children was a kind of child abuse, and that if God existed he’d have to be an atheist, too.”
Shortly after the family has moved to Indiana for Cole’s father’s new job, the epidemic gathers strength. When his father succumbs to the flu, the boy is devastated. He sees “how terrible it must be to be afraid to die, to want to live and live, and to not have any power to change what was going to happen to you. He told himself he would have been willing to die in his father’s place — he would have done anything to save his father!”
Soon Cole too falls ill, becoming delirious. When he regains consciousness, his mother has also died, so he is sent to an orphanage. In the wake of so many deaths, these makeshift institutions are springing up everywhere. And they are nightmarish places, from which children are abducted by human traffickers “whose own numbers kept growing now that other illegal trades, like drug dealing, had become much harder to ply. Evil too has to eat.”Cole is then adopted by a pastor and his wife, and is even home-schooled. I'll leave the rest of the review out, as I think it reveals some key plot points. Nevertheless, here is the end of the review:
Nunez tells a fine tale, avoiding clichés and providing powerful insights. To our surprise, we are drawn equally to the Wyatt family and to Cole’s dead parents: being fallible is what they have in common. Through Cole’s eyes, the redemption offered by religion is offset by its hypocrisy; he finds his enlightenment not from dogma but from his own painful experiences. By the end of this satisfying, provocative and very plausible novel, Cole doesn’t believe that the world is about to end. Instead “he saw himself living a long time and going many places and doing many different things. ‘Your whole life ahead of you’ — never more than just an expression before — now came to him with the ring of a blessing.”
Cole’s epiphany doesn’t acknowledge a god or reject one. Instead, it echoes the insight of one of Camus’s characters: “Since the order of the world is regulated by death, perhaps is it better for God if we do not believe in him and we fight with all our might against death, without raising our eyes heavenward where he keeps silent.”
Read the full review here.