From the author of "Holocaust" you might expect something better.
"The Healers" is a turgid, wordy medical story that, in its more anemic moments, make "General Hospital" seem healthy fiction by comparison. It does have its seductive spots -- an engagingly ironic opening sequence in which spunky, Irish third-year is calm a drunken giant, who has been brought into the Emergency Room with buckshot in his bottom, by calling him a lousy Mick. The durnk, who has adopted an Irish name but is in fact right out of 1950s Little Italy, is so madly flattered tht he behaves. There is also a colorful look at the post-war peddling of sulfa and other scarce medications by American soldiers in Germany.
But after the few chapters, this 500-page leviathan degenerates into a trite, unimaginative exemplar of the rigid characterization and lack of development in the novel. If it were not linked by theme to "Holocaust" -- and to Green's earlier novel, "The Last Angry Man" -- it would be hard to believe these were all works by the same author. And that is a pity, because corruption, the theme Green has pursued in each of these books, is worth exploring in a medical context.
It "Holocaust" offered up the bitter fruit of mass corruption in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, "The Healers" attempts to delineate the small accumulation of day-to-day decisions that change a young New York medical student of the 1950s into one of the most powerful figures in a debased medical empire of the 1970s.
The degeneration of Kevin Derry is outlined in sharp contrast to the violent, perpetual Joe, who is an honest doctor in every sense that his handsome, slick older brother is not. Kevin Derry's decay parallels the coarsening of the brothers' beautiful sister Bridie, who leaves the nursing of disadvantaged children to become a powerful television network commentator -- and a shrill, brittle woman whose spiritual impoverishment grows with her wealth and influence.
That theme of gradual corruption has been dealt with countless times before, and sometimes very well. Unfortunately, Green does not deal with it so well. There is no flow, growth, or change in his characters; we are not imaginatively drawn into their lives. The book-jacket descriptions of them are not only apt -- they remain sufficient through the entire book. Again and again, Joe is angry and innocent; time after time, Kevin is apologetic but ruthless.
Finally, a moral is tacked on at the end: Joe is content, happily married, with a son as tough and gritty as his father. Kevin is divorced (an earlier wife committed suicide) and aging, with a failing heart after two bypass operations, and a son who has joined the Jesus freaks somewhere in Clolrado.
It is really too much to swallow. And, worse, in the process of hitting on every thematic cliche imaginable in a treatise on corruption, Green seems to have missed what may be the real crux of the problem -- as it relates to medicine, at least.
It is not so much, in the medical community today, that people deliberately commit miscreant acts; it is that too often accidental errors are covered up and as a result, some people who ought to be compensated for what has happened to them are not. Even the most careful of health professionals -- like professionals in any other field -- will err at times. But the threat of malpractice suits is viewed as so omnipresent that doctors are encouraged to band together and lay a cloak of secrecy over occasional mistakes they believe should not be allowed to ruin their reputations or financially debilitate people who are careful amd competent at their work.
It is hard to know whether three, four, or seven such episodes begin to add up to corruption of character. But if it is the case, that is a far more worrisime -- perhaps because it is less tangible -- threat to the integrity of medicine than the hackneyed, more obvious character flaws Green lays before us in "The Healers."