Frank Huyler may be competent as a physician, but he excels as a writer. These 28 medical tales, subtitled "True Stories from the Emergency Room", have been lightly sprinkled with a fictive coating and honed to a skeletal starkness that renders them as fleeting as cinematic takes. Chronologically following his early career from medical student to 32-year-old hospital doctor in Albuquerque, New Mexico, his evocation of a frequently harsh learning curve exposes space and stillness even in the claustrophobic intensity of ER. As an intern, he stitches a man's gashed face, and returns the next to day to admire his handiwork, only to realise, after a while, that it's now the face of a corpse. He saves another man's life by plunging a needle in his chest to relieve air pressure, then returns later, "savoring him, taking something for myself".
Such conventional heroic acts are balanced, if not exceeded, by mistakes. He misses a broken neck, and nearly kills a man by giving him antibiotics to which he's allergic, but he learns the value of instinct. The distance between the flesh and the person is constantly borne out: people he knows intimately, inside out literally, regain consciousness only to meet his attentions with blank indifference. It's enough to test the most durable soul, and it does. A fellow student murders his partner, and a neurosurgeon maintains a serious drug habit, practises voodoo and sleeps wantonly with bodies denuded of emotion. Blue is the colour, of their moods and the flesh and innards that splatter their working day. Huyler himself, in one of the bleakest moments, passes on the possibility of a relationship with a colleague, feeling only "this vacancy, this spending cold".
Predictably, critics have cited Raymond Carver and Chekhov in their praise. Huyler's writing stands the comparison. In his heady, sleep-deprived intensity, he seeks out poetic truths rather than clinical ones, reaching them through the visceral, and exposing them to our glance. The Blood of Strangers represents a brilliant, precocious debut, best taken whole, though probably not before meals. --David Vincent
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‘Set to become a classic.’
‘A breathtakingly brilliant portrait, sketched so elegantly that if it were done in pencil it would only consist of a few sharp lines.’
‘One of the best writers to emerge since the death of Raymond Carver. He moves medicine out of the realm of science and into the domain of humanity.’
• ‘Dr Huyler’s short, intense book treats of only the most important matters: life and death. This is a young writer with a big mind – and an even bigger heart.’
• ‘If Raymond Carver had been a doctor, these are the stories he would have written. There are no untarnished heroes here. This is the world as it is: lovely and disturbing all at once.’
Atul Gawande, New Yorker