Patient, doctor must face death before living life

February 03, 1991|By Diane Scharper

HEALTH AND HAPPINESS. Diane Johnson. Knopf.

256 pages. $19.95. Diane Johnson, biographer, critic and novelist, is fascinated by the individualist. Accordingly, she writes biographies of such people as Dashiell Hammett and Mary Ellen Meredith (novelist George Meredith's first wife) and their need to be inner-directed.

Her fiction, too, describes people who are at odds with society. Usually professionals, often doctors, her protagonists feel stifled. Deciding that they want the fullness of life with all its trouble, they set out in a new direction, one fraught with risk but also with possibility.

"Health and Happiness," Ms. Johnson's seventh novel, successfully probes the same territory.

This time the protagonists learn a lesson out of Henry David Thoreau's "Walden": Don't wait until death to find that you haven't lived. But, as readers see, these characters have waited until death, at least near death.

Furthermore, they must work out their fate in a university hospita setting, where death and desire, both unauthorized, are ironically and "thickly present."

Ivy Tarro begins to awaken from her coma. She hears oimagines she hears doctors, nurses, aides talking to her. "Tell us what is going on inside your body. Are your periods regular? Let me check your breasts." Dr. Philip Watts is speaking. She stops breathing, the better to listen. She tries to open her eyes, but she can't. She falls back into sleep, then awakens thinking of her baby, Delia. Soon her situation becomes clearer; she was near death, but a doctor saved her.

She realizes that she is "a protagonist in a struggle between the forces of life and death. . . . Life for the moment has won."

Protagonists Ivy Tarro and Philip Watts battle death and win. But their victory brings a result that changes their lives and the lives of several people in this dramatic and frightening story.

Soon Ivy and Philip are forced to make a series of agonizing decisions.

Sometimes, as Philip points out, you don't know what to do and you have "to wait and see what the drift is." Other times you have "to battle against the current . . . even bail out and swim."

SG On one level, the plot, flirting with melodrama, shows Ivy at first

wrongly admitted to the hospital, then overmedicated and finally near death. Philip, the chief attending physician, saves her. Working in a hospital filled with every kind of sickness and pain, he has learned to harden his heart; "otherwise it would break."

But as Ivy recuperates, Philip learns that his heart isn't as hard as he had thought. Eventually, Ivy recovers and leaves the hospital; Philip sees her empty bed: "A loss of light in the room, after the flare of her [golden red] hair, reminded him of death, and tore at him so sharply that he looked away."

Ivy also learns something about the condition of her heart: "The heart has no laws! He kept coming into her thoughts like a sea to fill a hole left by the absence of a house."

On a second level, the plot focuses on two people -- doctor and patient -- who, learning that life is risk, take risk. Here the novel approaches art, insisting that life must be lived.

As Ms. Johnson puts it, "If you hold back from life and risk -- the few times these dangerous opportunities present themselves -- life seals up its face."

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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