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The Doctor Stories – William Carlos Williams

by Venky

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More often than not, there is an unfortunate yet unavoidable disconnect between what we do for a living and how we actually desire to lead our lives. This divergence is due to a total lack of convergence between passion and purpose. This absence of alignment, gradual at first, and enveloping at the end, leads to a resigned acceptance of what is, and a perpetually gnawing and wistful regret of what could have been. As Doctor William Carlos Williams optimistically illustrates in this collection of short stories, it is possible to evade the scythe of frustration by cleverly blending profession and passion. Desirous of being a poet and an author, yet required to discharge a noble duty of catering to the physiological ailments of a poor and underprivileged section of the populace in Rutherford, New Jersey, Williams amalgamated his writing skills with his invaluable experience of dealing with and treating his patients. The result, a burnished collection of stories and poems representing the voices of the healer, the healed, the helpless and the hopeless.

“The Doctor Stories” is a unique assemblage of stories that trigger a complete range of emotions in the reader. A whole gamut of sentiments ranging from euphoria to exasperation and anger to anxiety rack the reader as she gets completely lost in the lives of the diseased. The protagonist in “Old Doc Rivers” is a doctor who once having attained the status of invincibility falls prey to an unshakeable vulnerability that is addiction. Before the vice of dope reduces the once formidable doctor to a pathetic wretch, he strides the medical profession like Lazarus himself. Poverty is an apparent and common thread that binds stories together. It is also not hard for the reader to hazard a guess that many of the stores are but Doctor Williams’s own experiences with his patients. A great number of them could hardly afford to pay him any fees. The family in “The Girl With a Pimply Face” try to finagle their doctor in treating not only a sick baby but also its mother and sister. “The Use of Force” spews staccato like sentences as the story proceeds in a breakneck fashion from its commencement to conclusion. A doctor is called by a desperate couple to take a look at their daughter. The obstinate and vexatious girl perched on her father’s lap refuses to allow the doctor to examine her inflamed tonsils. When coaxing and coercion fail to do the trick, the doctor is forced to use blunt force that results in the little girl clamping down hard on her tongue and drawing blood. “In a final unreasoning assault I overpowered the child’s neck and jaws. I forced the heavy silver spoon back of her teeth and down her throat till she gagged. And there it was – both tonsils covered with membrane.”

The simple yet profound beauty of imagism manifests itself in a most magnificent form in many stories. Doctors called at all times of the day and night to make house calls find themselves surrounded by an environ of minimalism. Houses seem to shrink upon themselves as there is barely room to maneuverer. The only bed in a few homes is the one in which a terminally ill patient with nary a hope of recovery, is at rest, Unruly, uncouth and uncivilized children keep running all around the house and obstructing the path of the doctor. Williams was actively helping his neighbourhood combat the pernicious menace of ill health during the Great Depression in the late 1920s and the early 1930s. Thus, the depiction of squalor and depravity comes as no great surprise to the reader.

Williams abhors verbiage for stunning economy. The complex makes way for the simple and the reader is transported into a world of pain and hope. The baby girl in “Jean Beicke” abandoned to both its fate and the benevolence of a care home deceives the nurses and doctors by displaying an excellent progress as she battles illness. But the happiness of the care home is abruptly and vengefully cut short when the little girl develops inexplicable complications and breathes her last. An autopsy reveals a highly treatable disorder that has been unfortunately overlooked by the tireless doctors working overtime to treat the child. “Well , Jean didn’t get well. We did everything we knew how to do except the right thing. She carried on for another two – no I think it was three weeks – longer. A couple of times her temperature shot up to a hundred and eight. Of course we knew then it was the end.”

In addition to the brutal portrayal of the collision of social classes, Williams’s own moral ambiguity and ethical ambivalence invokes more than a slight consternation in the reader. Objectification of women, in the examination room and on the examination table, finds a disturbingly casual expression in more stories than one. An unnamed physician expressing disappointment at the ‘flat’ breasts of one of his patients is totally cringeworthy. Whether Williams was paying homage to the mores of his time, or he was just exhibiting a repulsive degree of condescension and perversion, such notions do not cut ice with me, and with none of his readers, I would assume and hope.

An unnamed physician in a story refuses to heed the call of a working-class couple across town whereas another story has a doctor lamenting the loss of a Rutherford child to disease and comparing the lost soul to a “born garbage hustler.” These are references and tropes that threaten to take the sheen and shine out of other genuinely excellent stories.

“The Doctor Stories” is a river that meanders luxuriously and purposefully and from whose banks both the prosperous and the pauper alike seek and find solace. However the river also makes some unnecessary and unfortunate detours, in whose wake is gathered garbage threatening to cause pollution.

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