In June I had the good fortune to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday with a visit to Minnesota and a reunion of cousins. That my Midwestern family likes to read good books became self-evident during my visit home.
Dad’s office is an entire room lined with bookshelves. His well worn copies of Will & Ariel Durant’s The History of Civilization, William Shirer’s The Third Reich, and hundreds of spy and detective novels are like long lost friends from the Cold War when I return to this space where my father now writes tall tales for his grandchildren.
To the surprise birthday party for dad, my cousin Larry brought his date, Heather McElhatton, the author of Jennifer Johnson Is Sick of Being Married: A Novel, to be released October 9 by William Morrow. This is her fourth book and follows, Jennifer Johnson Is Sick of Being Single. She writes “fiction,” but her sense of the absurd clearly stems from real life experience. You can’t make up this kind of funny. She fit right into the Swenson storytelling tradition: tragicomedic.
Larry’s younger sister, Julie, asked me for new book recommendations. But it was Julie who told me she’d just finished Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir. She said she couldn’t put it down, offered a compelling plot, and the story haunted her weeks later. An unsolicited rave review.
And yet I stalled on reading it for 10 weeks. Sounded like such a sad story of a 12 year old boy with a heart deformity, who dies. This father’s tale of struggling to save his son in a race against time and a flawed health care system reveal the vicissitudes of every parent’s hopes and fears. Doron Weber offers a rare portrait between a father and his son from page one that hooks the reader. He gives voice and life to the red-headed pint-sized Damon whose grand spirit transcends his body.
The idealization of the deceased, the projection of blame onto incompetent medical professionals, the arrogance of the narrator’s voice in revealing how his professional position with the Sloan Foundation allowed him to offer his son rare privileges during his short life might seem like significant shortcomings to this story. But they aren’t. That Damon got a speaking part in a walk-on role in the series, Deadwood, thanks to his dad’s networking, offers the reader real insights into the tremendous integrity of his son as aspiring actor. That a heart transplant could go so terribly wrong in the best hospital with all that money can buy is the heartbreak of the failures of modern medicine. This contemporary version of The Little Prince is grounded in the specificity and details of this real-life teen hero.
Like Amanda Bennett’s The Cost of Hope, Doron Weber’s memoir tells a story that statistics and financials about the American health care seem unable to convey about the systematic shortcomings of our medical system. For Bennett, there are no easy culprits. For Weber, his finger pointing doesn’t resolve the ways the system absolves responsibility for medical care. It’s an American tragedy.
Perhaps it’s time for me to nudge Heather to start writing Jennifer Johnson Is Sick of Being Sick. Can we laugh at how absurd and surreal a visit to the hospital can be? Maybe it’s just not that funny.