Maybe it should come as no surprise, in light of the dual careers of Anton Chekhov and William Carlos Williams, that the often illegible handwriting of doctors can contain subtle, intelligent, careful and passionate information about what it means to be alive.
Dr. Abraham Verghese's remarkable first book, My Own Country, told the story of Verghese's internship and residency in rural Tennessee in the mid-'80s, when he found himself treating young men with AIDS before the word was coined. During this time, he began keeping a journal, he says, "as a means of relaxation [and] also as a conscious way of overcoming the very obstacles that confounded me in the daytime. For example, in my daily work, I could not turn back time, I could not reverse falling lymphocyte counts, I could not stop the inexorable progression of this virus that affected my patients. But in the evening, by the mechanism of fiction, I could do all those things."
Verghese's new book, The Tennis Partner, takes place in El Paso, where he is chief of infectious diseases at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center. In prose that is powerful, brutally honest and precise, Verghese explores the dissolution of his marriage and his intense friendship with David Smith, a medical student who had once played tennis on the pro circuit and was struggling with a life-threatening addiction to cocaine. As Verghese explains, "The act of writing, in a surprising way, allows me to understand a period of time.... In other words, in the telling of this book, in a strange sort of way, I've managed to reconcile myself with what happened."
Dr. Verghese's first book was a bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has recently been adapted into a Showtime original movie. The Tennis Partner should garner equal attention. In chronicling the passions and even failings of this compassionate doctor, the book illuminates the worth and beauty of life in what can sometimes be a senseless and difficult world.
"I was very resistant to writing the book. It seemed to me a form of torture to re-explore a very private part of my own life. But now that it's done ... I have a sense of having brought meaning to [that part of my life] that would have eluded me had I just lived it and not done this. So, yes, writing is in many ways a kind of medicine."