[due to unavoidable circumstances, this month’s edition of One-Track Mind has been postponed a week.]
Jacqueline Druga-Johnston, The Flu (LBF Books, 2006)
NOTE: I had had this recommended to me by a number of people whose word I trust almost implicitly. I had coincidentally picked up a copy of the 2006 first printing at a library book sale about a year before; those who were pimping it recently were talking about the 2013 third edition from Permuted Press. It is possible that some of the things I talk about below got, as it were, fixed in post.
Have you heard of The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 movie so legendarily awful that it has been having Rocky Horror Picture Show-style midnight screenings around the country for the past few years? There are many ways in which The Flu is reminiscent of The Room. You won’t believe what you’re reading, and yet somehow you won’t be able to put it down, either. Unlike The Room, this is because Druga-Johnston’s jaw-dropping lack of writing and logic skills mask a number of, well, downright fantastic things about The Flu.
We open in a remote Alaskan research station. By the time our Patient Zero, a local trader, reaches the base, the entire research team has been wiped out. He heads back to civilization, carrying the disease, and things happen from there. Eventually, the entire country is infected…with the exception of the small town of Lodi, Ohio. (Full disclosure: I live in the very northeast corner of Medina County, Ohio. Lodi is in the very southwest corner.) Thanks to some forward thinking by town sheriff Mick Owens, the flu was kept out of town early, and as the rest of the country dies, Lodi becomes a beacon of hope for the flu’s few survivors…and a target for the desperate and the lawless.
Let me give you an example of the books Room-iness. At one point, a character says that the global population in 1800 was one billion, and the global population today is six billion. He then goes on to conclude that if the flu has a death toll of seventy-five percent, that will bring the population back to 1800 levels. I had to stop for a few minutes after that one and walk away. That’s the level of dialogue writing found throughout the book. Prepare to be extremely annoyed by some of the characters’ dialogue quirks; they can get on your nerves pretty quick. But here’s the really frustrating thing: Druga-Johnston is using a lot of that stuff that just seems annoying at the beginning to build her characters. (Okay, she could have probably found better ways to do it, but still.) Some of those characters really shine; Bloom and Harden, a couple of hapless government hacks who gets trapped in Los Angeles when the flu breaks there, are wonderful, and then Druga-Johnston lets loose in the final few chapters and you can see what all that character-building was moving to, it’s extremely effective. She is also very good at plotting, and almost as good at pacing; there’s nothing here you won’t see coming from at least fifty yards out, but it’s all put together quite well if you’re willing to look past some ridiculous science (just put it down to poetic license).
Frustrating, but the good parts of it are good enough to recommend this as long as you have a strong stomach for cheese and can let odd mathematical calculations roll off your back without too much thought. ** ½