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The Man in the Empty Boat

The Man in the Empty Boat - Mark Salzman Mark Salzman is one of my favorite living writers. His stories, whether novels or memoirs, are charming and wonderful, often hilariously funny, but deeply touching, too, and important. Not just frivolous or fluffy. This latest one of his was no exception. We really see the world in very different ways, he and I, yet he has the ability to reach me, to show me the familiar, to make me care. I recognize me in him. I think that is perhaps one of the most important ways I connect with an author, or they with me, is when their writing causes me to recognize myself, to identify with the characters in the story.

When his sister died, when it turned out that it was the hospital that killed her, that story is so familiar to me from my own life. First from the time when I was young and idealistic and went to work in the computer department of several hospitals, when I realized they kill people all the time, every single day, from dumb mistakes. When I realized you should never go into the hospital unless and until the quality of your life without it is so bad, and the possibility that they can fix you is so good, that it's worth that mortal risk. I began then camping out in my loved ones' hospital rooms any time they had to be in, asking questions, checking labels, doing my best to safeguard them from dumb mistakes. I did this when my dad was sick, too, but in his case I wasn't able to help much. He was given dose after dose of what turned out to be bad Heparin, and it caused his fever to spike (overlooked by the hospital when the techs kept shaking their instruments, failing to believe them, and taking more and more readings until one finally came out lower, then writing that one anomaly down instead of the honest answer). It caused him to have terrible difficulty breathing, as the clots formed and lodged in his lungs. I put my foot down finally and got them to call a medical pulmonary specialist who realized the problem in about 15 seconds. Because the medical community knew that there was bad Heparin out there. Someone made the decision to leave it in circulation rather than cause a panic. Much better that patients should die than that we have to admit a mistake, right? Yes, I'm still a bit bitter. He did die anyway, despite my best efforts.

When he talked about his writing, how hard it was for him, I recognized that too. And yet what he publishes is always marvelous. There were several times when I just laughed and laughed out loud while reading this one. And maybe it's precisely because he doesn't have things all sewed up neatly for us, because he still is astonished and a bit bowled over by life, that his writing is so refreshing and lovely. He reminds me a lot of Nevil Shute, one of my favorite dead writers.

I kept thinking he was coming to a religious conversion of some sort. That's what it felt like he was reaching toward, and as a lifelong atheist myself who converted in my late 30s to Mormonism, I was recognizing again what he felt and thought. But though it was spiritual, for him, it wasn't quite religious. I get the feeling his mind just won't work in that way, that it's too foreign to him. It might be Buddhist, in a way. The empty boat of his title refers to a story I heard told by Mattheiu Ricard, a biochemist and Buddhist monk. That you don't yell or get angry on a lake when bumped into by an empty drifting boat. You just laugh because you aren't the target. So when you empty out that "me" so there's no target there, you find peace, truth, and right. The "me" being the mental construct, the mistake, that causes suffering. In Mark's case, his realization happened because of a dog fart, but the principle is the same.