Last week I facilitated the monthly meeting of The Literature and Medicine Discussion Group at a local hospital, or as I affectionately call it, Book Club for Doctors. I’ve had the gig for several years and I love it because I get to talk about fiction with very smart people whose highly skilled jobs and training have nothing to do with fiction, which is a really useful exercise for a writer.
The book I chose for discussion was Kevin Powers’ powerful novel about two American soldiers in Iraq, The Yellow Birds. The story turns on one of the soldiers reluctantly agreeing to promise his buddy’s mother that he’ll bring her son home alive, a promise which he, of course, cannot keep. It’s a lyrical novel, big on poetic language and fractured chronology. I wasn’t sure how it would play with these busy medical professionals, but they liked it, and we ended up having an interesting discussion about promises.
It turns out these doctors, who had little else in common with Powers’ young, uneducated protagonist, empathized with the soldier’s desire to comfort an anxious mother, even though he knows he shouldn’t. Some of them spoke candidly about the pressure they feel from patients’ families to make promises of assurance, even though, as everyone knows, there are no guarantees in medicine. As happens at these events, the conversation serendipitously went a direction I hadn’t anticipated and I ended up thinking differently about both Powers’ novel and the emotional pressure of being a doctor.
Up next? Ben Fountain’s novel about Iraq war vets at a football game, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.