* 12.21
A novel by Dustin Thomason
Book review by Jules Brenner
The Dial Press (Random House), released 8/21/19, 336 pp., $27.00
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A man of some age and rank in a Mayan village clutches a wrapped package as though losing it would be the differnce between life and death. He's addressed by a temple guard as "Royal and Holy One" and, though he's challenged to reveal his possession, it proves worthless to the young guard and the man moves on, his destination, America.

The steadfast native (indigena?) will reach his target city of Los Angeles and the effect will be a catastrophe that will envelop three researchers to head off. First is Dr. Gabriel Stanton, the first and only director of the CDC's (Center for Disease Control) Prion Center, a "prion" being a malevolent protein that attacks and adversely affects the brain when they multiply above a tolerable level. At that point you've got Mad Cow disease, or FFI, something that involves eating tainted meat. But the basis of horror in the tale is that they can develop into a different but related disease that is transmissible and can cause death in humans.

But, is it FFI, a rare but understood mutation? This version causes, among other things, complete insomnia so severe as to further cause a breakdown both physically and mentally, and death in a relatively short time. Such a case comes to Stanton during a meeting attended by one Dr. Michaela Thane, a third year resident at L.A. Presbyterian Hospital and the second to be involved in the coming catastrophe. She has a patient she believes has contracted FFI. It's the secretive Mayan villager, barely alive after not sleeping for over a week. And, when his DNA comes back, his chromosome 20 shows no signs of FFI. Is it even a prion disease?

Third and most importantly, Guatemalan native Dr. Chel Manu, the curator of Maya antiquities for the Getty Museum, is introduced to the mystery by virtue of her Guatemalan birth and ability to translate tribal dialects as well as to interpret the glyphs of the ancients.

Before seeing "John Doe," however, she holds her weekly service for the needs of Guatemalan locals at Our Lady of the Angels church. It's among these where the "end of the world apocalypse" theories abound as the calendar date approaches December 21, 2012. Chel knows well her ancestors' complex calendar system and the 5,000-year Long Count in the four ages. But to her, the idea of an apolcalypse is nothing less than ridiculous.

When her last visitor leaves, one Hector Guitterez, a man she has known in the past, appears in the doorway of her office holding a black duffel bag. He looks distressed and anxious, appealing to her to hide the bag in a vault at the Getty until better security can be found for it. The illegality of it causes her to demur. Her job would be at stake were she to see it and not report it. But then she takes a look.

Inside the duffel is the object the wizened old indigena was grasping so tightly when we last saw him. She identifies it as something she's seen before, but never one like this. It's a codex, a book of drawn characters on bark paper in a version of "classic Ch'olan" with phonetic complements written in Qu'iche, a language she grew up with.

She visits the stricken man where he's being held as a patient at the rundown East L.A. Presbyterian Hospital in a room secured by bars. He keeps repeating,

"Vooge, vooge, vooge..."

Chel's bedside visit will set her and the CDC off on one of the most urgent investigations to identify the rare brain disease the man is suffering from, its cause and the source. As more and more people contract the disease and go berserk, nothing less than civilization is at stake. The gripping tale, while not altogether unique to pandemic thrillers, has unique features and a setting calling for a deep understanding of a little known-culture, its almost lost languages, and the state of the art in 21st century neuroscience. On the non-factual side, there is the secret abnormality that the codex was written to reveal. A mystery of depth and dimension in the fullest sense of the word.

Furthermore, while it's of the genre that Michael Crichton thrived in so influentially, Dr. and author Thomasan has a less strict take on story construction -- something that even involves losing sight of a major character from time to time. But never at the cost of relenting on the drama's hold on us to the very last page, nor exploring Chel as a reclusive woman devoted to her science, the Maya, suddenly exposed to... well, new things.

If you don't yet own 12.21 and would like to purchase it (usually at a sizable discount), click here.