The last of the Rabbi Small series narrated with an annoying over-aggressive punkishness by Guidall — to intimate, perhaps, the intellectual aggression of Rabbi Small, the clever not-to-be socialized puzzle solver and prayer leader of the Conservative Jews of Barnard’s Crossing Massachusetts. The characters are at least as alive as the Jews next door and just as argumentative and recognizable and relevant. Best read from the book, but worth hearing too.
Only Anne Tyler can make an off-license church appear as American as apple pie, and it’s off-beat flock, a fumbling but cuddlesome assemblage. The Church of the Second Chance is both a hovel and haven of forgiveness, a familial supplement to a family no longer familiar, a family askew.
In 1965 Mrs Bedloe was one of those mothers who believed that life, her life, was perfect, and that everything that happened in life, her life, was perfect. “Her marriage was a great joy to her, her house made her happy every time she walked into it, and her children were attractive and kind and universally liked.” Indeed, in 1965 the Bedloe family had been perfect, or close to it as you got on Waverly Street, in Baltimore. Mr Bedloe was a high school math teacher and the coach of the baseball team, Danni worked in the post office, Ian dated the prettiest girl in his junior class and dressed in high top sneakers held together with electrical tape.
Afterwords, after the Bedloe family had lost Danny and Lucy, whom he had met in the post office, and married, and who had worn red lipstick and stockings with too straight seams, what remains are Lucy’s three children — Agatha, Thomas, and Daphne, and Ian, and his parents, and the house, with its attic converted into bedrooms for the extra children.
For years the facile, monarch-note like introductory blurbs of audiobooks have been aimed at delayed airline passengers looking forward to a two or three hour seat in a jet on hot tarmac. As nonlocalizably uninformative as the pilot, but more or less referential.
The introduction to Robin Cook’s Critical marks a new slovenly low for the Recorded Books label, with its mistaken reference to “Jack’s heart operation”. (Dear editors: There is nothing wrong with Jack’s heart. Not in this book. It’s a different body part being operated on. Really. )
One sure sign that a publisher, or a civilization, is going down the drain is when it’s references are wrong. Another is when medics start talking about an innate sense of ethics. Ethics is a form of action, a set of practices and reflections based on habit and training. Ethics is not a sense. Nor is it innate — in the newborn –or in the coat closet. It is not inside anything because it is not a body, not a thing that occupies space.
But if it did occupy space, it would not be space in New Jersey, where Robin Cook has been spending too much time and where Critical gets its goombahs, its bad guys, its evil. The good guys are of course in New York, doing autopsies, solving crimes and playing Dick and Jane, medical examiners….
Somewhere in between are the doctors. And the entourage of bureaucrats who settle into their attached positions like feudal serfs, and the moneylenders, insurers and staph infections which prop up and support the institution of medicine in a big city.
For those of you who have been reading or not reading Koontz lately, it may not be obvious that there are two Koontzes: the early Koontz and the late Koontz. Like the early Heidegger and the late Heidegger. The distinction should open the door to hours and hours and hours of delightful, unadulterated intelligence, humorous rumination, and lines of imaginative flight: emotional transport, sideways, to use a Koontzian term. For those of us who know who Sammy Davis Jr. and Mr. Wizard are, add hours of being-with-a-member-of-one’s-own-generation type pleasure. The ease of recognition. The Door to December is early Koontz — performed by a seasoned master: George Guidall. The first actor, in fact, hired by Recorded Books, a New York City based studio that used actors (rather than babysitters) to read books out loud.
And now to the battle of principalities. Yes, principalities. Early Koontz is political and politics is always about principalities. Consider the ex-husband that kidnaps the daughter and disappears for 5 years. Consider the mother. These are characters, but they are also theories. She is a psychiatrist specializing in child psychology, and he is a behavioral psychologist specializing in behavior modification. Their theoretical differences underpin the moral-emotional ones. One theory locks the child in a gray room, isolates it, deprives it, shocks it, plays with it and forces it to change. The other theory lacks scientific rigour, but feels better. It is the theory of the mother who tries to heal the beaten child.
And alongside the good mother is the good cop. Defiant, tenacious, competent, the cop and the mother talk the child away from the institution of evil. Talk is play, talk is confession, talk is a technique which can organize both good and bad emotions.
Someday the totalitarians will take over and they’ll pass laws so you can’t pee unless you have permission from the official federal urinary gatekeeper. Then you’ll come to me with your bladder bursting and you’ll say Luther, my God, why didn’t you warn me about these people?
In Las Vegas…
…there were hundreds of people …standing around the craps tables, people in suits and evening gowns, people in slacks and jeans conscienciously rustic cowboy types standing next to people who looked as if they had just survived an explosion in a polyester factory.”
It is not obvious that there are soldiers missing in action from the war in Iraq. It is said that the Arabs do not take prisoners, do not leave Americans alive. So the horror of a category of men archived by the subjunctive, neither real nor unreal, neither past nor present, neither recognizable nor localizable is an emotion associated with Vietnam, not Iraq. This is a mistake.
First, imagine the kind of paranoiac, legalistic, calculating Soviet Russia which could nurse a wounded Marine, but could not admit to his presence in the Soviet Union. Not without confirming their (illegal) presence in Laos. Not without confirming his (illegal) entry into the Soviet Union. Not without confirming his (illegal) imprisonment.
Second, imagine that news of this missing soldier arrives in Washington, but the soldier himself does not. Thirty years after Vietnam, a nosy busybody Jewish-Polish CIA hacker hag, with the chutzpah of someone who’s been around the block on heels, makes friends with a CIA boyscout and helps him find out why.
Iraq is not yet Vietnam, but wait.
As the eighties crash down around him in images of newly divorced women and unusably long nails, Macon emerges as a peculiar species of American male bent on reorganizing the world. Author of guidebooks for businessmen who hate to travel, Macon Leary writes about the latest KFC opening in Paris and the whitest hotels in London. He works at home. He micro-manages his world and everything in it. He reduces foreignness. He is, in fact, a perfect mascot of a decade of globalization, OCD and telecommuting.
His son dies. His wife leaves. His dog becomes passive-aggressive. He meets an outrageous, frizzy, single mother who trains dogs and talks too much and wobbles on high heels. He takes her son shopping. He doesn’t change.
Ethan was dead and gone but Macon was still holding up shirts saying “This one?” “This one?” “This one?”
When a lawyer and a cop reconstruct the life of a pretty, jolly slut they recover hundreds of small, dishonourable wrongs, shameful and unpretty. Sandra Nichols loved to fuck, and she liked men, and she married them. And then she left them, and started again.
Her children are a sad disarray of nervous and neurotic plaintiffs in Kyle v Wade, the wrongful death case they bring against Sandra’s last husband. Peter Wade, who wasn’t meant for Williams College, nor perhaps for this planet, would not stand trial for the murder of Sandra Nichols. Instead, Peter would be compelled to give these demented children all the money he will have had to give Sandra, if he’d divorced her, according to the prenuptual agreement he had signed. A pretty good hat trick for a criminal lawyer, newly versed in Chapter 229 section 2 of the Massachusetts Criminal Code and the 1972 Compensatory Wrongful Death Act.
Robin Cook gives us another SMART & NUTS type physician, a dysfunctional, adulterous, snivelling subjectivity with a license to practice concierge medicine in Boston.
Some seven chapters into the book we realize that it is still George Guidall reading. Good narrators, like good waiters, disappear, imperceptibly.
Robin Cook Marker read by George Guidall
Most bestselling writers, like Hollywood waiters, are really something else. Shrinks, lawyers, opthamologists. Divorced ex-cops. Sometimes a reporter. A confused priest or two. We excuse such slippery behavior when it gives us access to technical knowledge: why kill? how do cops catch criminals? what can laws do? Which health insurance?
If one listens from cover to cover, one can learn incredible things:
Never get into a car with an armed felon. When a body dies, it is flooded with potassium; so if you want to kill someone, use a potassium derivative to cover your trail. In every bureaucratic health care administration sits a bored actuary who does nothing but dream up new ways to reduce insurance risks, to wit: eliminate individuals who are genetically marked to live long and die sick.
Cook does his “forensic pathologists have more fun” routine. It’s a good routine. But, god help us, its not technical enough. We want more long, unpronounceable medical terms. More ugly medically-specific showmanship and one-upsmanship. More perverse occupational fetishes. The rumors, the gossip, the news: what do forensic pathologists talk about, think, eat? What color lipstick do they wear? Where do they buy their CO2? their shoes? their condoms? How about those space suits? The reason Patricia Cornwall is so good is that she skulls the profession, shows us its brain, and makes it bleed. Robin Cook surveys the hospital as an institution, its political posture and position and positioning, its players, its life-cycle, its economics. At a distance. After all, he’s doing something else.
“What’s reasonable and what isn’t has little to do with decisions about health care in this country…. By a strange twist of fate, managed care companies and malpractice plaintiff attorneys suddenly found themselves in the same bed in their desire to keep any malpractice reform legislation from happening… Managed care companies didn’t want things changed so that they could be sued and the malpractice attorneys didn’t want changes that would cap pain and suffering awards or eliminate contingency fees… “