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The Tennis Partner Paperback – 6 May 1999
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Abraham Verghese's first book My Own Country was about his experiences of dealing with AIDS sufferers; this, his second, is more personal. It is the story of his friendship with David, an intern at the hospital where Verghese is a Professor of Medicine. They meet at a time when both are in need of companionship and their friendship blossoms, imperceptibly developing dependencies until their lives are enmeshed professionally and personally. However, what Verghese does not realise is that David is wrestling with an addiction to cocaine, the profession's personal demon, which engulfed him once before and is hovering again. The harrowing descent into relapse that unfolds is as painful to read as it must have been to witness, until finally death swoops with tragic inevitability, leaving a debris of spent souls trying to piece together something that defies clinical definition.
The Tennis Partner is primarily about relationships; Verghese's with David, both with their families and partners, but most of all David's with cocaine, a telling hierarchy in itself. While Verghese's tennis improves, his opponent's shaky mastery of his own destiny deteriorates as he fails to put to rest the feelings of inadequacy and shame that are his true companions, a player who can control the ball to perfection but cannot get a grip on himself. As a doctor Verghese comes across as one of the rare breed who have not been de-sensitised, pointedly seeing a person rather than an ailment. He works in internal medicine, and prides himself on piecing together a diagnosis like a detective (David revealingly lusts after the buzz of emergency medicine). As a writer he displays similar qualities, but not without a searching candour that gives his account its expressive vitality. The truth is, though, that for all his humane lyricism he can only diagnose, there seeming to be an aspect that cannot be quantified to the addictive personality that refuses release. The very least to have come from the subordinated life of a doomed young man is this brilliant and sober book, which refrains from being a morality tale, and only gains in magnificence for it. --David Vincent
"Verghese is a fine writer, lyrical and controlled, and he captures the attachment between two men - its motives, its allure - with both precision and charm... Wise and compassionate" (New York Times Book Review)
"A brave and heart-baring story" (Time)
"Heartbreaking... Indelible and haunting... An elegy to friendship found and an ode to a good friend lost" (Boston Globe)
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Top customer reviews
And in the end, I sniffled, enough for a concerned fellow passengar on the train to ask, "Are you okay mate?"
Don't miss it !!
Verghese provides loving descriptions of the diverse places he has inhabited on this good earth, from the eucalyptus trees perfuming the high African city of Addis Abba, to the lush green wooded hills and dales of eastern Tennessee that he has declared to be his home, but one that he would depart for professional reasons, to settle for a piece in El Paso, Texas, and find a lovely tennis court, high on a hill, just north of the city, where he could look across the Rio Grande at night, and observe the twinkling lights of one of the most violent cities on earth, Juarez, Mexico.
Verghese is a medical doctor, and his novels so accurately depict the medical field, to those who have partaken. He is a “lowly” internist, as he would wryly note in “My Own Country,” at least in terms of financial remuneration. Like Chekhov, and a few others, the internists are the observers, always noting skin hues, abnormalities, a slight puffiness here and there, even in their friends, socially. The good ones can also observe the heart and soul. In Verghese’s own words: “My Luddite streak was aroused. Would that I could wave a wand and bring back a simple pedal bike, bring back wooden rackets, bring back doctors who didn’t need batteries of blood test to diagnose conditions that were staring them in the face, bring back…”
No need for a “spoiler alert.” The “medical outcome” is in the dedication: “In memory of David Smith, M.D, 1959-1994. Verghese and Smith balance their strengths and weaknesses. Verghese is now an accomplished doctor, based on his work in east Tennessee. Smith is the resident, still learning. Smith is also a very good tennis player, once out there on some loop of the semi-professionals. Verghese is aspiring, still learning. Smith accepts him on the Court, and Verghese accepts him on the medical rounds. Smith is Australian, and on a bit of a different career trajectory. And he has a “secret” that much of the hospital knows, and Verghese is late to discover: a history of opioid drug addiction. But all that is now safely in the past… or is it? As is well-known, on a percentage basis, those who work in the medical field are more likely to abuse drugs for two straightforward reasons: ease of access, and the pressure of always having to “get it right,” or, as the expression has it, you bury your mistakes. And it is the Emergency Room that is the worse place to work. Hum.
This novel touched me personally more than the other two. I once worked in a vast open-air Emergency Room for a year. A fellow medic was addicted to the morphine we carried, and would shoot up all of his, and anyone else’s he could grab. And if a soldier was wounded, he would use Thorazine instead. A shutter from those who know the real implications of that. And what do you do about it? What is fair and reasonable for him, as well as the men in his unit? Turning him in, and he gets a one-way ticket to LBJ (Long Binh Jail), and the unit has no medic. Is an addicted medic better than none at all? It was a difficult call I did not have to make. But when Verghese wrote of his own rationalizations, the cover-ups, the “just one more chance…” I was right along, on edge the whole way.
Far more pleasantly, there were my own tennis games, with a medical doctor, who was NOT an addict. Neither of us were anywhere near the tennis league of Smith, nor even Verghese. But it was a lot of fun. The ritual, the passion, the wonderful exhaustion experienced thereafter, when two players are so evenly matched in their ineptitude. Every Tuesday night, a weekly highlight. Certainly it would be uncharitable to bring up my partner's dyslexic line calls…
And then there is the matter of my son’s long-term girlfriend, now finishing her third year of med school. We talk books over dinners, and this is the one she really wants to read. Bravo. But I really think it should be in the “core curriculum” of any medical school.
As a final point, Verghese would do the same as he did in east Tennessee; he’d visit his patients outside the hospital setting, and in this case, it meant walking along the Rio Grande, looking in the bushes, for his partner who once was on the other side of the net. Empathy, and more than a bit of courage. I complete the three novels with another 6-star determination, and realize that Abraham Verghese is the only author I have read who has received that determination for every work. May there be a fourth.
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