Twenty-one tales in a first collection, set in contemporary South Carolina but with a broadly stroked symbolism more at home in the gothic south of Flannery O’Connor.
Here, theologian and novelist Engel (A Woman of Salt, 2001) takes us to Coosawaw County, Carolina Lowcountry, where a young Jewish doctor arrives in the early 1990s to practice among those patients other doctors in the area won’t treat—poor blacks and whites, AIDS victims, the aged and the difficult. Dr. Reuben never appears as an active character but his perhaps Christlike saintliness is an underlying, unifying element here. The other doctors (except the oddly irrelevant black doctor) are narrow-minded and money-grubbing, if not downright bad. Christian ministers also come in for a drubbing in stories like “Philosophy of Education,” about a woman who bucks her religious friends’ opinions and nurses her dying gay husband, and “You Got To Learn How to Read Things Right,” about Sister Gloria, a seer, who describes how her daughter’s minister has robbed the joy from religious experience. Numerous patients are given monologues. Aged black matriarch “Queen Esther Coosawaw” uses the local dialect to tell the gratingly cute history of her life. In “Rat,” a Vietnam vet talks self-deprecatingly about his life while Engel makes sure we recognize his generosity of spirit and sense of purpose. Engel’s third-person stories are looser and more complex. One of the best, “A Better Man,” includes some heavy-handed proselytizing about medical costs and prescription medicine abuse but then evolves into a genuinely moving account of a man’s struggle to be “a better man than my father.” Also moving because a character is allowed to surprise us is “What We Ought To Be,” about Dr. Reuben’s nurse, a familiar southern middle-class woman who transcends her stereotype.
Engel writes with passion and grace but clobbers readers over the head with message. The result is easier to admire than enjoy.