Saturday, October 27, 2018

Book Review: 'McDowell' by William H. Coles


“The motives and means of McDowell’s death will always be front page interest”

Utah author William H. Coles, MD is a retired Ophthalmologist whose medical career was internationally lauded for his expertise as an ophthalmic surgeon specializing in ocular injury repair and reconstruction, a professor and chairman at SUNY Buffalo School of Medicine, a Regent for The American College of Surgeons, president of the Association of University Professors in Ophthalmology, and lecturer on mechanistic biologic ophthalmic research and ophthalmic surgery internationally. Preparing for his career as a literary fiction writer Coles studied in more than 100 courses and workshops with more than seventy-five authors, editors, and teachers and created, a website with resources for fiction writers, illustrators, and avid fiction readers. He has published ten books - five novels, collections of short fiction and three books on the writing of fiction stories. He has also garnered honors for his participation in the arts – jazz piano, antique art, museums, and historic preservation.

After reading MCDOWELL and absorbing this consummate novel of the rise and fall of one man’s existence, read the book again – this time to bask in the brilliant prose and, yes, poetry, written by an author whose name should be on every list of significant contemporary writers. William H. Coles blends his depth of knowledge about medicine with his extraordinary sensitivity to philosophy and the true meaning of life as it can be lived, abused, fractured, and redeemed – all in the story of one Hiram McDowell.

Cole’s election to open his story on the snowy mountains in Nepal in 1981 does more than capture the reader’s attention with a scene and deed that overshadows the theme of the book: it gives immediate evidence of the polished prose that fills every page of this book. ‘The sky cleared briefly before daybreak. The sharp, bitter winds eased somewhat, but the negative forty-degree temperatures penetrated to the bone. Hiram McDowell lifted the flap of a one-man tent to look in on Erick Woolf, who turned his head, his beard tinged in frost-white from his labored breathing; Woolf lifted his goggles, his pale blue eyes opaque with fatigue. “You ready?” Hiram asked. Woolf shook his head “no,” trying to smile but his face remained motionless. Hiram took off his outer gloves, freed up an oxygen tank from Woolf’s backpack, and placed the mask on Woolf’s face. Woolf rallied after a few minutes of oxygen. Within half an hour, with four other climbers, Hiram and Woolf started for the summit. Woolf’s fatigue slowed progress and after an hour they soon fell behind the others. The wind gusts increased. Woolf sank into a sitting position a few yards from a slope of snow and ice. Hiram steadied himself on a steep vertical. For a few seconds, the visibility improved, but he saw no one. “Go,” Woolf called to him, his voice husky dry. “I can’t do it.” With only slight hesitation, Hiram waved his agreement. He had only two hours or less to summit before their oxygen supply ran low. And Woolf was too weak to go on; the rest would strengthen him. At the summit, Hiram took photos and, for a few minutes, absorbed the satisfaction of his achievement and the awe of the view from the highest point on earth. Winds picked up, and snow and haze decreased visibility as he began his descent. He pressed on. After an hour, he stumbled onto Woolf a few feet from where he had left him. “Get up,” Hiram yelled over the howling wind. “Help me. In the name of God,” Woolf pleaded. Hiram gripped Woolf’s parka to help him stand, but Hiram was too weak to lift, and Woolf fell back. “Rescue,” Woolf moaned, drifting off into semi-consciousness. Rescue from base camp was impossible until the weather improved. And they were in the dead zone, too high for helicopters. Hiram freed Woolf’s remaining oxygen supply and attached it to his own pack. “Don’t leave me, Hiram.” Woolf coughed. Hiram backed away and started down. Climbing ropes aided him for a few hundred yards. Near a rock crevice familiar to him, he stumbled on the half-buried lifeless body of a facedown climber. A candy bar and water were in the inner jacket pocket. Near the corpse’s outstretched arm, a glint of silver stopped Hiram. From hard snow and the ice-solid fabric of a frozen glove-hand, he freed a silver crucifix that he pocketed for identification and to send to family. He plodded ahead. The storm abated and he felt the muted exhilaration at knowing he would not die. On return home after his miracle survival, Hiram dreamed of immortality. He determined to climb every peak above 8000 meters in Nepal.’ And therein lies the rub!

The synopsis touches on the novel’s course – Hiram McDowell, an admired, lauded, arrogant surgeon climbs to the top of his profession. But his callous and questionably moral determination angers colleagues and friends who vow to destroy him. He becomes a member of the President’s cabinet when a personal family tragedy presents him with a dilemma that leads to a felonious crime. When his world of wealth and privilege collapses, only time can reveal if he rebuilds his life to garner always-desired esteem. McDowell’s passion for his children is hacked by his grandson’s murders and attempted suicide and subsequent mental illness which leads to McDowell’s trial and jailing for second degree murder, his escape and squandering his emotional resources as he gropes for meaning, for redemption from the fall from grace his being has suffered. The ending of the novel explores euthanasia vs. suicide and a long deep breath that forms the creation of McDowell’s biography. 

William H. Coles is most assuredly one of our finest American authors, an artist in line with Ian McEwan, Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen et al. Highly Recommended.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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