THE SPIRIT OF THE PLACE, by Samuel Shem (a.k.a. Stephen Bergman, Massachusetts and Balliol, ’66) Kent State University Press, 2008
Reviewed by Jim O’Toole, The American
Oxonian (California and Hertford, ’66)
At one time or another in that long and often tortuous journey of human growth that we hope ends in wisdom, almost all of us feel compelled to “return home” in an attempt to learn who we are through discovering where we came from and what early influences shaped the persons we were to become. In his (now largely unread) 1940 novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe chronicled the all-too-frequent disappointment of those who attempt such a side excursion from life’s main path. Indeed, most people seem to find that their old homes aren’t what they used to be, or what they thought they were; many even fail to locate any real home, at all.
But the protagonist in Samuel Shem’s award-winning novel, The Spirit of the Place, not only goes home again, he finds there what has been missing in his life: strong ties to family and community. Orville Rose, M.D., is a modern American wandering Jew, a Leopold Bloom from “Columbia”-on-Hudson. Rootless and purposeless, he travels the globe without a moral compass in futile search of just what he doesn’t know. The theme may be familiar, but Shem infuses the old story with layers of original insight and contemporary significance. Rose, the reader finds, is every disillusioned American Baby Boomer. His home town–divided by racial, religious, and ideological antagonisms, and rife with drugs, violence, and materialism—has all that is the worst of America (and, paradoxically, also the best in terms of the ability to adapt, innovate, and coalesce around common values). And the moral of the book is universal: if we are patient, willing to engage in deep reflection and, above all, willing to make ourselves vulnerable by opening up to others, we all can learn a great deal by returning to the places where it began.
Orville Rose is a lost soul when he returns to Columbia. When faced with the need to make any meaningful commitment, his predilection is to run away. But in Columbia he gradually learns the true lesson is not that you can’t go home again; instead, it is that you can’t run away. The town’s movers and shakers are hell bent on tearing down an historically significant old hotel on the main square in order to erect a shopping mall. At first, Orville is indifferent to the efforts of preservationists to prevent the destruction of the building, but in the nick of time he sees that he is running away from a social obligation to act, and ends up taking a principled stand to save the hotel. Shem uses preservation as a metaphor for the longing for lost youth, a past that cannot be relived, but can be positively reclaimed through reflection and forgiveness.
In particular, Orville learns that he must come to terms, finally, with the memory of his recently deceased, and decidedly difficult, mother (whose “spirit” he sees floating about the streets of the city). Shem is telling us to face the fact that we don’t outgrow the effects of our parents until we die; hence, it is prudent to deal with them even after they are gone. Orville finally gets mom to quit hovering overhead by saying to her spirit the things he should have said while she was alive.
I may be making the book sound sentimental, or preachy. Fear not: Samuel Shem is the very same author of the comic best seller, The House of God, and too skilled a writer to let his story become a sermon. In strong evidence in these pages are Shem’s trademark humor, ribaldry, and ability to turn emergency room surgery into a madcap tragi-comedy of gushing blood and nauseating gore. For example, Columbia’s hunters are habitually…blasting off parts of their own bodies—a toe, a foot, a finger, a hand, an arm, a leg, a head—yes, even a head—leaving gaping wounds behind. Exhausted by all this, Orville worked like crazy to find creative solutions, ways to make these remnants of severings and eviscerations and amputations and gapings and, out of them, as the New York antiquers were always putting it, make art—that is, make not necessarily humans but bodies.
A major theme of the book is medicine as art. Physician Rose, by necessity, must harden himself in order to cope with the unspeakable horrors of the emergency room. But in the process, he risks losing his humanity. To be a fully functioning human—and an effective doctor—Rose must be both a scientist and an artist. Perhaps Shem’s greatest strength as a writer is his ability to resolve the tension between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures,” science and the humanities. That’s probably because the author has a foot firmly planted in both worlds: On the one foot, before pursuing his medical degree at Harvard, Stephen Bergman earned a doctorate in experimental physiology from Oxford (he wired the brains of cockroaches to learn something or other); on other foot, he and his wife, Janet Surrey, co-authored a critically acclaimed play about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous that recently ran off-Broadway. In The Spirit of the Place, as in his three previous novels, Shem/Bergman brings compassion to the medical profession, and wisdom about the human condition to us all.