Book Review: A doctor fiction writer and a poet of the working class reveal profound truths in the tools of their trades

A woman swallows needles. A man can’t remember that he’s been diagnosed with cancer. Another has a metal halo screwed into his skull. On the surface, these could be standard hospital stories—plotlines on a TV emergency-room drama. But in Terrence Holt’s capable hands, they delve much deeper.

Holt is a geriatrician and professor at the UNC School of Medicine. His new book of short stories, INTERNAL MEDICINE: A DOCTOR’S STORIES, follows a physician through the grueling years of his residency vis-à-vis his fleeting relationships with patients. At a recent reading, Holt said that wrote this book partly to disprove what TV shows would have us believe about hospitals: that they’re rife with meet-cutes and dramatic solutions, and that lives are usually saved. He wanted to convey what it’s really like to be a doctor—the confusion, the frustration and, most of all, the frequent sense of futility.

“Here’s a sad story,” Holt said before reading “The Perfect Code,” where a doctor longs for peace amid the relentless demands and incessant noise of the hospital. “Well,” he added, “I guess all of these stories are sad.”

Holt came onto the scene with his nationally acclaimed 2009 debut In the Valley of the Kings, a collection of literary fiction with shades of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Though Internal Medicine is a bit more down-to-earth, Holt stays true to his lyrical ruminations on life, death and humanity, which flit through stories about bodies, illnesses and intravenous drips. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: In hospitals, such ruminations are inescapable, and Holt is the perfect person to explore them.

Each story focuses on a patient and his or her ailment. Harper, the doctor—a stand-in for Holt—develops a relationship with the patient and tells of the illness, the treatment, the family, the breaking of bad news. Each story is like a case study—in medicine, but also in the human condition. The endings unfurl delicately to make us catch our breath and contemplate the bizarre, complex ways in which we live and die.

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