Hospital patients fight for richer lives in Cantwell’s (Rosa's Gift and Other Stories, 2013) latest novel.
Thirty-four-year-old Philip Nason is the recreational director of Riverview Hospital, situated on an island in the middle of New York’s East River. The facility is used as a long-term-care facility for chronically ill patients, many of whom are partially or completely paralyzed. Nason originally took a job there to get a worry-free, steady paycheck that would allow him to pursue his off-hours dream of writing poetry. He’s been on thin ice with the Riverview administration for some time, mainly due to his free-thinking approach to providing his patients with meaningful activities. As the novel opens, several of these patients have just staged a “supper rebellion”—upending their food trays in protest against the hospital’s tasteless fare and indifferent staff. The institution’s administrators know that Nason has read to these patients about Henry David Thoreau and civil disobedience, so they’re certain that he’s the root cause of the unrest. Riverview is a bleak place, a human junkyard offering little to the patients who end up there; the patients even refer to it as “Farewell Island.” When Nason confronts the case of alcoholic quadriplegic Clayton Thomas, he dreams of turning Riverview’s hopelessness into something more fulfilling, for both himself and the patients; specifically, he wants to help Thomas to learn how to paint by holding a brush in his mouth. The spiritually charged artwork that eventually results is revolutionary, but the more conservative elements of Riverview’s administration fight Nason and his program. Cantwell fills his well-structured, compassionate novel with convincing insider knowledge of life inside a long-term-care facility, and its many details feel memorably authentic. He avoids turning his characters into the clichéd, otherworldly innocents that often fill fiction set in hospitals. However, there’s a fair amount of rough language scattered throughout the book (“ ‘Cut the shit, and just tell me what you want,’ Clayton snapped”), and some surprisingly explicit sex scenes. Overall, however, the resulting story is ultimately uplifting, precisely because it’s not idealized.
An expertly realized novel about the redemptive power of art.