REVIEW: I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Michael over at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer for sending this book to me. Published in 1978, it's a slender volume compared to today's novels, clocking in at a svelte 135 pages. That's good because I had to re-read it right away, that's how much I enjoyed this story.
Because the story is relatively brief, no words are wasted in an attempt to be lyrical or poetic. Yet somehow there are moments of utter poetry in the exchanges between doctor and patients, and in Kane's own introspective reasonings.
The hospital is populated with men who are well-educated, bright, witty, and pitifully disturbed, and they come at Kane over and over again with questions and challenges right out of left field. Most prominent is the unofficial leader of the men, astronaut Captain Billy Cutshaw -- imagine Hawkeye Pierce with a religious fixation -- but there's also Lt. David Reno, formerly a B-52 navigator, now busy adapting Shakespeare's plays for dogs; and there's also the hospital's medical officer for physical ailments, the presumably sane Dr. Fell, who claims he was misassigned, that he is a pediatrician. But the rapid fire banter between the patients and their minders is less like the sparring in M*A*S*H, and closer to, oh, say the verbal tennis match in Tom Stoppard's classic play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It's okay for the reader to laugh, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't carefully weigh what is being said.
Amid the constant chaos of his characters, Blatty addresses issues of mistaken identity, faith and spirituality, and the nature of love and sacrifice. The story is tightly woven, deeply moving, and wonderfully thought-provoking. The ending is both reassuring and yet will tear the heart out of the reader.
In this excerpt, Dr. Kane has just arrived at the hospital and been shown to his office by the medical officer, Fell, when Billy Cutshaw interrupts them and begins testing the newcomer now in charge.
Kane heard heavy breathing. Cutshaw was standing inches away, his eyes staring madly, shining and wide. "Okay, now I'm ready for my ink-blot test," he said. He swooped to the chair, dragged it over to the desk, sat down, and looked expectant. "Come on, let's go."
"You want an ink-blot test?" asked Kane.
"What the hell, am I talking to myself? I want it now while you're fresh with all those roses in your cheeks."
Kane wiped his face with a handkerchief. "We have no Rorschach cards."
"Like hell. Take a look in the drawer," Cutshaw told him.
Kane pulled the desk drawer open and removed a stack of Rorschach cards. "Very well," he said, sliding into the chair behind the desk.
Fell ambled toward the desk to observe.
Kane held a Rorschach card up and the astronaut leaned his head in close, his eyes scrunched up in concentration as he studied the ink blot.
"What do you see?" asked Kane.
"My whole life rushing past me in an instant."
"Okay, okay, okay: I see a very old lady in funny clothes blowing poisoned darts at an elephant."
Kane replaced the card with another. "And this one?"
"Kafka talking to a bedbug."
"You're full of shit, do you know that?"
"I thought it was Kafka," Fell interjected, studying the card with interest.
"You wouldn't know Kafka from Bette Davis," Cutshaw accused him. "And you, you're a mental case," he told Kane.
"Yes, maybe I am."
Cutshaw rose and said, "Ingratiating bastard. Do you always play kiss-ass with the loonies?"
"I like you, Kane. You're regular."
Cutshaw tore the medal and chain from his neck and tossed them on the desk. "Here, take the medal. I'll take a book." He snatched How I Believe by Teilhard de Chardin.
"And now you'll be good for a week?" asked Kane.
"No. I'm an incorrigible liar." Cutshaw walked over to the door and threw it open with such force that again the crash loosened plaster from above. "May I go?" His voice had a childlike earnestness.
"Yes," said Kane.
"You're a very wise man, Van Helsing," said Cutshaw in an imitation of Dracula, "for one who has only lived one life." Then he loped out the door and disappeared from view.