'SLEDGEHAMMER' POUNDS AWAY AT SMALLPOX THREAT
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Can a book be poorly written and a great read? This one can - "Sledgehammer" is a gripping, powerful portrait of an American emergency room physician encountering the "index" case of a national bioterrorist attack by Islamic terrorists. And the editor of it ought to hang his head in abject shame, as should the hack who wrote the book's dust jacket copy.
I get books in the mail from a number of publishers, and it's honestly rare that I get around to reading one. But Dr. Paulo J. Reyes' novel of an American physician trying to deal with what presents as an ambiguous case of pox - monkey pox, chicken pox, smallpox, who knows? - is unnerving and engaging in the extreme. I had a lot of trouble getting into the book because of the dust jacket's inane copy and the editor's lack of discipline in allowing the surgeon who wrote it to sound too much like a surgeon and too little like a writer. But, boy, did I love this book. It is probably the best biowarfare thriller of the dozen-odd I've read in the past 10 years.
The story is has an almost Aristotelian ethic in its observance of time. Everything that's important happens within a tightly-wound period of about six days, and all of it takes place within the confines of a a hospital - in fact, except for the opening scene at the doctor's home and some telephone calls that go in and out of the hospital, the hospital and its emergency room, ICU and corridors are the only locales.
That helps to focus the action of this compelling novel about a weaponized form of smallpox, called "sledgehammer" for its forceful appearance - it kills within a few days - that is introduced into a busy emergency room somewhere in California (we presume it's a suburb of Los Angeles, but that's never clear) and eventually takes hundreds of thousands of lives across the United States.
The action really comes in the form of increasingly desperate attempts to save the lives of a variety of victims, only one of whom actually has come down with smallpox. That victim, a terrorist using the name 'Villalobos" who pretends to be from Mexico but is a Middle Eastern terrorist trained in the rugged Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan, is only slowly revealed as both a smallpox victim and a terrorist. Thus, the veil is drawn back slowly, a chapter at a time, and amid the revelations concerning "Villalobos" are half a dozen hypnotizing accounts of sick and dying children, alcoholics, women and others in life-threatening condition as they are treated by a highly skilled and close-knit nursing team and a dedicated physician, Dr. Max Kroose. There is a small, sad love story woven within the narrative, and some exemplary acts of courage that are both genuine and entirely unexpected.
Amid the controlled chaos of the nursing room we get a telling glimpse of a hospital administrator who is far more knowledgeable about costs than about his responsibility to the first responders who work on his staff; at the internecine warfare between physicians over insured vs. uninsured patients and their care; at the prima donnas who sometimes risk the lives of their patients for points of personal pride; at public health officials whose first concern is bureaucratic protocols and whose last concern is public health; about the way in which Fort Detrick, Md., the home of American bioterror research, may have engaged in some underhanded and dangerous - and probably necessary - experimentation with smallpox; about the real threat of smallpox to an unprepared world; and, not least of all, a horrifying and unforgettable glance at the ravaging course of the most dreaded disease on earth.
This a book that is chock full of a surgeon's jargon, and while many may have trouble with that, it greatly increases the book's overwhelming realism. Even as I griped out loud about grammatical errors, run-on sentences, typos and plain old spelling and syntactical errors, I couldn't wait to finish another page. It is a damn good book, and before he writes another I hope Dr. Reyes finds an editor worthy of his skills.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of the American Reporter and edits our Book Review.