The Spirit of the Place, Samuel Shem, Kent State University Press
Orville Rose, a recently divorced doctor without borders and perpetual adolescent, is living impecuniously in Italy with a passionate Italian yoga teacher when he learns that his mother has died. The terms of her will stipulate that he will inherit a large sum of money, so long as he returns to his childhood home for a year and thirteen days. Broke, he reluctantly ends his Italian idyll to return to Columbia, New York, a town “plagued by breakage,” where anything that can go wrong, usually does—spectacularly. So begins The Spirit of the Place, the fourth novel by Samuel Shem, also known as Stephen Bergman, MD, the Boston psychiatrist perhaps best known for The House of God (1978), his bestselling novel about one man’s coming of age as a physician in a hospital that was by turns an erotic funhouse and a chamber of corporeal horrors.
Shem’s latest effort is not as raunchy as The House of God, but his preoccupation with the powers and limitations of healers persists in The Spirit of the Place. Having returned to Columbia and now living in a turret room in his mother’s house, Orville Rose also comes back to small-town doctoring encouraged by his old mentor, the quirky local physician Bill Starbuck, who encourages smoking in his office and whose cabinets are full of vials of “Starbusol,” a homemade nostrum that Starbuck hands out when a placebo is indicated (and sometimes when it’s not). When Orville is not ministering to Columbia’s sick and broken, he is fending off intrusions from his dead mother, who appears at intervals from beyond the grave in order to continue to make Orville feel guilty for not making her happiness his first priority just as she did in life.
Superficially, Orville’s task is to vanquish his mother’s lingering ghost and choose between two lovely women—the tantric Italian of the book’s opening scenes and Miranda Braak, an amateur historian whose long view of Columbia and its history give Orville a new and much needed perspective on his own biography. Despite the pleasures of such a choice—we should all be so lucky—the task is harder than it sounds for the simple reason that Orville cannot get far enough away from his mother’s influence to know his own mind in affairs of the heart. However, Shem is too canny about the dynamics of families to blame bad mothering for his character’s problems and let fathers entirely off the hook.
In fact, the crux of the book—and its most moving scene—concerns the relationship Orville enjoys with Bill Starbuck, his accidental father. In this scene, Starbuck has had a stroke and his condition is deteriorating. Orville stands by, doing the small things that need to be done at such a juncture—in this case, he gives Bill a shave. This apparently small and simple job requires Orville to split himself, imaginatively and empathically—to feel both the razor in his hands and Bill’s face underneath it:
As Orville got into it, it was as if he were feeling his own stubble and the razor cutting through his own lather. And then, under his attention, it transformed again, so it wasn’t even that he was shaving Bill or shaving himself but that shaving was happening. […] The shaving became a suturing up, across a mirror, across a fleshy gap.
Empathy in ordinary life is at once so pervasive, so fleeting, and so unsettling that it is difficult to do much more than note it when it happens. Yet, Shem takes the moment and spreads it out for us anatomizing it as a good teacher might. Then, to make sure we understand what is at stake in such a charged moment, when subjects and objects dissolve into some third thing beyond selfishness and self-consciousness, Shem seizes the metaphor again and elaborates on it:
It isn’t his heart or my heart, it’s the human heart, the human journey, common and ordinary and a big deal and a small deal both and the only deal really and available to us all at no extra cost if we can face it, bear it, share it.
Shem’s point is a good one: nurturing attention can be a balm to a young person plagued by hunger for an absent parent, or by an intrusive one like Orville’s mother (or, worst of all, by both). Shem’s novel is a tender exploration of real and symbolic parenthood, of the power of benign authority to combine with simple empathic concern to heal old wounds and to support young adults (and the young-at-heart) finish the tasks of adolescence.