The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese

TTPI usually avoid books that even mention AIDs but our group chose this well-written book and I am glad I read it. The member who chose this book said that it always made him cry at the end. Another member said that the last few pages were captivating.

However, one of out members said, ‘I gave up- half way through. It’s a very dull book and the author doesn’t discern what matters and what doesn’t. He just includes everything; it doesn’t manage successfully to turn autobiography into a novel.’

The chapters are short so it can be savoured. We learn that doctors were homophobic in early days of AIDs but that this has changed as they got to know patients and their relatives and saw the ordinary lives they lead.

The two main characters are foreigners adjusting to a new country but David’s life shows the dark underside of the American dream of renewal. He stands at a juncture between two opposite paths: an orderly middle class existence in medicine with a wife and a “dream house”; and the hell of drug addiction, shame, poverty, disease and death. Is his choice of hell a rejection of a hollow, spiritually vacant, respectable middle class existence?

The author sees the doctor as a ‘minister of healing’: touch more important than gadgets. Storing medical records on computers, he says, doesn’t make up for the shortage of primary-care physicians (he reckons all trainee doctors should do a year of prima care in a poor area) and does nothing for the true care of the anxious patient. US Medicare pays doctors to do rather than listen. Verghese says that diagnosing is like looking for a white tennis ball which you can’t always see. One member said that he would love to have Abe as his doctor; he is so good at observation. However, another member said that ‘the constant medical detail was a bit bugging.’ Doctors believe that their role is top make people better, yet Abe seems to be dedicated to lost causes: AIDs and drug abuse.

What is the nature of David and Abe’s relationship? Is it that of mentor and mentee? Or is there some sexual attraction? Abe knew David’s schedule much as new lovers do. (Abe looks at men’s bodies in the showers but with the eye of a medic looking for signs of illness.) David’s other addiction is said to be women but Abe does wonder if he is a sexual compulsive and if the gender really matters so long as he gets his fix. Whatever the nature of the relationship it is obvious that Abe loved David. It’s a very moving love story about hope and disappointment. We are left wondering why Abe’s marriage broke up. Is it because many medics put one hundred percent into their job so have no time left to nurture relationships?

Is drug addiction a “disease” like diabetes or cancer, or is talking about it like this harmful because it absolves the addict of responsibility? And what do we make of the statement that “David is responsible for David”. The Samaritans think so and don’t intervene unless called to do so. But are we now our brother’s keeper in some way?

Is David’s suicide an act of despair, wanting to cease to feel, to exist, or is it a positive statement of belief in something better to come?

Drugs don’t surface until a third of the way through the book so we get to know the characters first, without prejudice.  That the hospital gives David many second, third, etc. chances suggests that drug abuse is common among medics. After all, they have access to them. However, would it tolerated in today’s target-driven culture?

I was squeamish about some of the medical descriptions so I wouldn’t agree with the doctor who said that surgery was like sexual release.  I do, however, know my own body enough, like one of the doctors, to shave by feel, not using a mirror.

 There are some good expressions: ‘Man cannot live on spaghetti alone.’ The morgue has ‘a baffle of short corridors’

There is a lot of detail about tennis, e.g. leaning forward to serve. One of our members said that ‘some of the tennis stuff was a bit unbelievable.’  “Tennis was so much more than a game,” he writes at one point, yet he acknowledges at the end, it is also just a game — a simple, even slightly absurd ritual “of the yellow ball.” This ritual weaves together many of the threads of the story. Playing tennis together for the sheer joy of it, each finds release. Tennis becomes the route through which each can unburden himself to the other and find solace in a difficult time. Through it “we found a third arena outside of the defined boundaries of hospital and tennis court . . . at a time in both our lives when friendship was an important way to reclaim that which had been lost.” Otherwise, “The doctor’s world is one where our own feelings–particularly those of pain, and hurt–are not easily expressed, even though patients are encouraged to express them. We trust our colleagues, we show propriety and reciprocity, we have the scientific knowledge, we learn empathy, but we rarely expose our own emotions.”

There is also, however, a hint of escapism: they are frequently flying above their city and there are lyrical descriptions of the mountains below which, on terra firma restrict them.

One final question: is the author related to medical missionary Mary Verghese? Google hasn’t helped me on this one.

We will probably still remember this book in a year’s time.

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The Boy In The Book – Tomááá Nussbaum

THITBMany of us pass by beggars feeling a little guilt. We tell ourselves that if we gave them some ‘spare change’ they’d only spend it on drink or drugs and be worse off than before. But we also suspect there is a backstory and that it could easily be us, however financially secure we presume ourselves to be. So how might we react to an unusual request? The ‘boy’ in this book wants to buy a book, not food.

Acting on rare impulse, millionaire, early-retired Rick not only takes the boy to a bookshop, he takes him home for a shower and does his laundry. Who would risk that? The boy might have a knife. Many readers will expect an ulterior motive: to use this boy as he has been used by so many others. So it’s refreshing that this isn’t so, that there is genuine altruism in the world. There is, however, a confused sexuality going on in this father/son relationship and confusion in the boy who is, on the surface, manipulative and opportunistic but is also, deep down, tragic, helpless and vulnerable.

A description of sex without love rings true to the experience of many – he was mentally somewhere else.

There is some bad editing (if any editing at all): Who is Ray? p. 62 – Rick?

The coincidences are a bit far-fetched despite the claim that ‘some things are meant to be’ or, in the pious, yucky term, ‘part of God’s plan.’ So is the sense of a ghost hovering over someone throughout the various twists and turns of the story. So is the overlong letter written by a father to his son.

There are hints of something almost supernatural early on – a note with address nearly blows away despite there being no breeze, pencil keeps rolling way, bill blows away, musky smell. Does an urn, containing cremated remains, rattle if someone shouts at it?

There is the occasional silly phrase, like comparing ‘déjà vu’ with ‘deja new’ or ‘the sound of blood rushing through their veins filled the room.’

The book abounds with bad similes: his posture collapsed as if hit by a wrecking ball; dinner plates came like spaceships, his complexion was like a clear Microsoft page.

There are also some loose ends – what was in the father’s will and how could he leave stuff to his son without it being in a will? The father wrote a letter, to be received by his son upon his death. But how did he know which address to send it to?

And why the obsession of some gay men with tank tops long after they have gone out of fashion?

The chief character is as dull as ditchwater. Like the author?

The father’s character is redeemed in one chapter. That’s not how people change their view of others.

Despite my criticisms, I really enjoyed this book. Others in our group didn’t, or enjoyed the first half but were annoyed when it suddenly became farcical. He ‘lost the plot half way through.’ In the second half, it is as if he wanted to bring lots of new characters in and experiment with different writing styles. ‘There’s some intriguing ideas but the man can’t write.’ One member of the group said he liked it ‘enough to get through’ rather than dump it. Another: ‘at least it went at a relaxed pace.’

To see another book by the same author, see here. 

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