A realistic debut novella follows a dying teenager and the young doctor who cares for him.
Wu, a doctor, has fashioned a tale based on a true story. The plot revolves around 16-year-old Larry, who is dying of AIDS; he contracted HIV through a blood transfusion after he was shot in Memphis looking for his long-gone father. Enter an unnamed doctor: fresh out of medical school and following his Air Force girlfriend, he winds up at the Gulf Coast Family Health Center in Mississippi, a ramshackle, desperate place that survives on love and dedication. The clients are hardscrabble Southerners, the staff ridiculously overworked. The plot focuses not only on Larry’s difficulties, but also the travails of the young doctor, who was confident and egotistical at his Boston medical school and now copes with the real world of bare-bones budgets, well-used equipment, and culture shock. Diabetes runs rampant in the Mississippi woods, so the doctor must learn fast. His patients include Diane Johnson, who comes in for much-needed treatment but then disappears for weeks at a time, and Rosie Jordan, an extremely obese diabetic who leaves him touching, handmade gifts from “Your Little Cockroach.” Most of these stricken souls will not recover. Larry, a stoic patient who knows his life will soon end, and the empathetic doctor bond through their love of basketball. The teenage patient, shockingly emaciated, eventually dies, but with dignity. As a colleague says, “There was just something about Larry that made you feel a little better about yourself.” Illustrated with quaint pen-and-ink drawings, this polished novella gracefully evokes life along the Gulf Coast (the heat, the crawfish dinners). Wu, following in a long tradition of doctors who can write vividly, packs his poignant medical tale with believable relationships and convincing dialogue. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether Larry’s last wish is an appropriate and sufficient payoff. The real story, though, is not about Larry so much as it is the spiritual and moral education of the curiously unnamed young doctor. That is Wu’s best and most promising achievement. Readers should hope he has more stories to tell.
A touching, elegant novella about the struggles of an overworked doctor.