Acre’s Holiday Sampler, Part 4

Michael Downs

We continue our review of Acre’s 2018 titles with The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist—a novel that the Los Angeles Review of Books aptly described as “not so much a character study or psychological novel as a meditation on the power of pain—the terror it holds for us and its paradoxical allure.”


Michael Downs: In this season of giving, I offer to you an excerpt in which I gave a gift to my character, Horace Wells. At this point in the novel, Horace has suffered trials and setbacks in his professional life. He has fought an addiction he can’t even name. A friend has betrayed him, and Horace himself has betrayed his wife, an adultery that corrodes his sense of self.

I thought he needed some relief, a moment of clarity or ease. In this passage, it is winter in 1847, and Horace travels aboard a steamer crossing the North Atlantic from England to America. He’s feeding seagulls from the deck, and they, in turn, entertain him with elegant turns through the air. This passage, when I wrote it, felt to me like a prayer for Horace’s well being. It’s a meditation that includes a moment of grace in that word’s Christian sense, and also a note of gratitude and peace.
The next time Mr. Benson saw Dr. Wells, the Hibernia was two days from New York City, with a hard wind off port making the going slow. The sea was in a petulant mood, and Mr. Benson’s job was to clear the deck of passengers. Most had gone below; he found only one. Near the prow, Dr. Wells wore his fine French top hat and a good coat, and he had a bucket from which he threw fistfuls of kitchen scraps at the gulls—an entertainment. Mostly, the birds chased the bits to the water, but now and then a skilled one snatched a morsel from the air. Wind swirled about the deck, so hard the black smoke from the stacks twisted with it. One moment you thought you’d hid from it, and the next your eyes would smart from a face full. It was an attacking thing, the wind, smarter than you.
“Come below, Dr. Wells!” Mr. Benson shouted. “Captain’s orders!”
The dentist threw another fistful of fish guts into the air. Mr. Benson thought the wind’s roar and the crash of waves against the prow might make it hard for the dentist to hear, so he started to approach.
As he did, a gust pushed so hard he had to quick spread his legs or fall. He saw the dentist lose his footing and reach for the rail, and his hat lifted from his head, somersaulting into the air, up where the gulls rose and dived. The dentist didn’t reach for it as a man is wont to do when the wind takes his hat—no snatching at the empty air, no chasing. He turned a little and watched it snapped by wind, off far to starboard, and then to the deck, skidding against a far wall.
Gripping the rail, his feathery hair whipping around his head, Dr. Wells worked his way to the side where the hat had flown. When at last he turned, hat snugged down to his ears, his shoulders fell as if he’d exhaled a deep breath or sighed. He came near on his way below, and Mr. Benson saw that the dentist’s eyes were damp, stung perhaps by the icy wind and exhaust. The dentist smiled what seemed a true smile, as if the hat had been something he’d wanted dearly to keep.

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