In this eloquent collection of essays, five new, the rest previously published, writer/surgeon Selzer (Raising the Dead, 1994) explores spirit and substance, flesh and feeling, pain and epiphany.
Selzer uses his pen as he did the scalpel that he relinquished 15 years ago when he became a writer full-time. He cuts to the guts of ideas about living and dying in “The Surgeon as Priest,” which graphically describes the descent into a diseased abdomen, but also ponders a patient whose skull lesion seemed to be healed by the waters of Lourdes and a contemplative diagnosis made by the Dalai Lama’s physician. Two new pieces offer further meditations on diseases that surgery cannot cure: “Phantom Visions,” which contemplates suicide, and “A Mask on the Face of Death,” a telling essay about the invasion of Haiti by AIDS. Readers queasy about detailed descriptions of blood, physical corruption, and bodily functions will be put off by the graphic depictions in “How to Build a Slaughterhouse” and in “The Corpse,” which explains how to prepare a corpse for viewing. The author’s intention is not to horrify, however, but to explore the flesh as the soul made visible. He achieves that goal most admirably with “Diary of an Infidel: Notes from a Monastery,” an account of his lengthy stay in a Venetian abbey whose abstemious monks are seduced by his offerings of chocolate and brandy but reject his medical care. Humor leavens much of the collection, including wry essays on “Writer’s Block” and baldness; Selzer fans will welcome repeats of autobiographical reminiscences and “Letter(s) to a Young Surgeon.” As the author himself admits, he is “a writer intoxicated by words,” and his lush style is also sometimes self-conscious, most evidently in the pseudo-Beckettian “Fairy Tale,” about the relationship between two old men at a street-corner cafe.
Nonetheless, a passionate, unsentimental celebration of life’s messiness, whether on an operating table or at a dining table.