Saul Dubinsky has been arrested for trying to steal drugs from a hospital pharmacy. No one is sure how this shy, sensitive, and dedicated doctor fell from grace. There was a patient who had attempted suicide—but the roots of this downward spiral may go back far further, and now his loved ones are trying to figure out what went wrong.
Saul’s emotionally remote wife, Rena, must confront the failures of their marriage—and in the process, face her shame over her own past. Saul’s father, who long ago gave up his own psychiatric practice, blames himself for his son’s breakdown, and finds himself tormented by memories of a troubled patient—and his complicity in his family’s long-simmering problems.
As Rena and Leonard each grapple with the impact of Saul’s arrest, they are drawn closer together—and a delicate transformation begins to occur in each of them—in a profound novel in which “none of the characters is flawless, even those we most love; they can be self-absorbed, lustful, weak, or afraid of intimacy, both spiritual and physical. Yet they are human in all their complexity, and they are beautifully rendered” (Library Journal).
“Gornick’s beautifully constructed novel is an expert balance of humor and pathos that will leave readers anxious for her next work.” —Booklist
“A wonderfully honest book, deeply felt, with characters carved from the true stuff of what we are. A first-rate novel, all the more surprising since it is Gornick’s debut.” —Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin
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A regimented man, I rise as always at five, lowering my big white feet onto the cold wood floor. I am thinking of you, Saul, my second-born son. You would laugh to hear me call you my second-born. So biblical, you would say. Begat, begat, begat. Your mother — a flowered bonnet over her beauty parlor hair, her chin slack, the inhaled clu-hah with the slight gasp in the middle, the exhale through the Grecian nose that turned somewhere in the past thirty-seven years from regal to beak — still has a morning's sleep before her and then her daily litany: not a wink all night, such a torture to lie there just watching the clock.
Downstairs, I make coffee and struggle to peel an orange. I toy with the night's dream fragment, partly a compulsion like a dog worrying a bone, partly an exercise from my old psychiatry days when residents still spent six months studying Chapter Seven of The Interpretation of Dreams. So different from your training three decades later when, you bitterly complained, no one read books, reading relegated to four-page articles in the green journal, terse pieces correlating drug dosages and symptom checklists. In the dream fragment, I'm with my sisters: Rose, Eunice and Lillian. We're in a room with pocket doors and a clawfoot dining table, so it must be when the six of us lived in the back of my Aunt Mindyl and Uncle Jack's apartment — the dining room, the maid's room and the miniature maid's bath our delegated quarters. Then the scene changes and Carmelita Erendira Gomez, the subject of the accursed biography I've been trying to write these past twelve years, is sitting with my sisters, showing them something I either can't see or can't now recall.
I eat standing at the kitchen sink. It's a habit your mother has always hated. "Only laborers eat on their feet," she would hiss in the years when I still existed enough in her consciousness to merit criticism, willfully dumb to the knowledge that my father had spent twenty-nine of his forty-two years breaking his back, the last six leaning over a pressing machine in my Uncle Jack's factory — the job, a gift in Depression years, bestowed only after my father had promised not to utter on the premises so much as a word of what Jack had called your Commie union filth.
I stare out the window, trying to lift the thick cheesy covering from my mind. A soapy light washes across the lawns, filtering through the two Japanese maples and the Canadian spruce we planted thirty-two years ago when the development was still new. I think, as I have every morning since, about how dissatisfied I feel with the view before me: the colors, muted and tasteful as befit a neighborhood where property values have consistently risen and the homes have gracefully aged, the uniformity of the colonials and ranches and split-levels hidden behind varying additions. How every person needs to live in a place imbued with substance, with personal meaning, how these surrounds have for me never ceased feeling weak, dilute, perfectly pleasant, with nothing discordant to the eye, but with nothing, either, upon which the eye would linger.
At six, I enter my study. Unable to face a blank page or yesterday's scrawl, I take out the red leather album where I keep the Mexican newspaper clippings about Carmelita. They're in chronological order, the first from a local paper when Carmelita started having visions, the last from a Oaxacan paper after her death in prison. I am midway through the album, feeling as always daunted about how to convey the many ways the events surrounding Carmelita were experienced — her family and the village priest saw her as a virgin saint with the baby miraculously conceived, the local police pointed to vindictive villagers jealous that her father had prospered in the new copper mine, the doctors suggested command hallucinations that had driven her to drown her own child — when the phone rings.
I pick up immediately.
Hearing your wife's soft, chilly voice at this hour, my stomach clutches. Rena is not the sort of daughter-in-law who calls simply to see how we are doing, perhaps because any call would involve listening to your mother's catalog of symptoms, each preceded by the phrase I'm doing better, better than last week, a reminder to callers that they'd failed her when she was really down.
"Leonard," she repeats. I am envisioning the bluish skin under her gold-flecked eyes, so large they bulge slightly and make one wonder about thyroid levels, her willowy form, the almost-perfect posture broken every now and then by a slight slouch, pentimento, I've always imagined, of some earlier, awkward self.
"Are you sitting down? You should sit down."
She sucks in air. "Saul's been arrested. Last night, in the middle of the night."
"What?" I stammer, not because I haven't heard but rather because I can't connect this to anything I know about you: your blue lips at the neighborhood pool, your wobbly ankles and eyeglasses the butt of so many pranks.
Saul's been arrested. The words sit outside my mind like three steamer trunks that cannot fit into an already packed car.
"Why?" I whisper. I hold the receiver in my hand, paralyzed, staring at the Japanese maples, their limbs knotted with baby buds.
"Something to do with drugs, a burglary of the pharmacy at his hospital. He tried to escape through the back window, but they had police in the garden."
I'm gripping the phone, having the oddest sensation, as if I can't quite make out what is being said. This uncomfortable thought I've had on occasion about your wife returns: that there'd been some other life before she came east, before you met her, things you hinted at when you married three years ago, black holes between the few facts you told us — that she'd grown up over an Italian restaurant in San Francisco where her mother was a waitress, was helped to go to Yale by a community organizer who'd then died of breast cancer, had her half brother living with her for several years.
Did she say drugs?
"I need a lawyer. I thought maybe Marc would know someone. I ..." For the first time, her voice falters, a tiny fissure between the words. "I don't have his number."
A surge of protectiveness wells up in me. It's a relief to feel something recognizable, to discern the outlines of something to grasp onto. "Wait," I say. "I'll take the next train."
I shower quickly. In reaction to your mother's hypochondriasis, I have refused to purchase the blood pressure cuffs so many men my age keep in their bathroom cabinets but find myself now anxiously worrying about my diastolic reading. I soap my flabby chest, forcing myself to concentrate on the circles of suds I make over the gray hairs, duck under a showerhead not installed for men my height, remembering the years of taking you and Marc into the shower with me, when you were little little, still in diapers, being sure to clean all the creases, the indent where we once had tails.
My hands shake as I write a note to your mother: "Gone to the city to use the library. I'll call later to let you know when I'll be home." I prop it next to the coffeemaker and lock the kitchen door behind me.
It takes twenty minutes to walk to the train station, the streets empty this early on a Sunday morning. I ride on the platform between the cars, staring out at the cruddy landscape grown around the tracks — the junked cars, the aluminum-sided houses with their clotheslines and swing sets, at one spot something that looks like a dead dog. I'm feeling sorry for myself, that I can't tell your mother what with her hysterical response to everything: the fainting or feigning of fainting, the need to call Dr. Stone for tranquilizers, the way anyone else's problems are immediately co-opted as her property, her tragedy. Guilty because I'm saved from another morning facing a blank page, as though Rena's call announced a snow day. We're in the tunnel coming into New York before I can focus on you and then I feel so awful, so sick in my soul, the air acrid with fumes, I have to move inside and take a seat.
Of course, I'd sensed you were having trouble this past year; for the first time, we'd hardly seen you. But I'd assumed it had to do with your job, with what had happened to that boy in the subway. I count back the weeks to mid-December, when you asked to borrow my credit card. You said you wanted to buy holiday presents for Rena, didn't want her to see the bill. I didn't question you, didn't let myself entertain any concerns about why you'd been so insistent, taking the train out to New Jersey on a Tuesday evening to get the card. Even your mother was suspicious. "Maybe he's having an affair," she said smugly, unable to disguise the touch of glee the idea gave her, revenge on Rena for not having provided any family of note for a Times wedding announcement, for keeping a distance from the dear-dear cluckers who listen to her complaints.
Your mother's bemusement disappeared when the bill (the only thing about the household to which she still attends being bills and bank statements) arrived and there were twenty-six hundred dollars of charges: a gold chain, a man's leather coat, a television set. "You call him, Leonard," she commanded. "Right this minute." When I'd not reached you, your brother, usually dutiful but brief in his phone calls with your mother, was, for once, happy to be her sounding board. He threw out his own theory, gambling, does he go to Atlantic City, you know what a gullible person he is, but it was easy to brush this aside as his old antagonism to you, the usurper whom he'd pronounced on your arrival home from the hospital to be an icky-wicky, his opinion of you having gone only downhill from there when he'd felt burdened with the job of protecting you from the very neighborhood bullies whose friendships he sought.
At Penn Station, I buy a bag of bagels and a tub of cream cheese, and then feel idiotic for having done so, for having blindly followed my mother's rule never to arrive at anyone's door empty-handed. I consider handing the bag to one of the homeless women splayed near the Eighth Avenue exit but, superstitiously, I clutch it to me.
Outside, it's cold and drizzling. The rain hits the bald spot on the top of my head. I hail a cab. Coptic crosses jangle against the rearview mirror and I recognize the radio station as the listener-funded one you support, the shows put together with Scotch tape and chewing gum, the topic today the environmental racism behind a Harlem incinerator. It's a little after nine when I climb the brownstone steps and ring your bell.
She's wearing what must be your pajamas. Her tawny hair is wild and uncombed, and my first thought is how alike the two of you look: two long-limbed ectomorphs, she the pale-complected reflection of your darker hues. A thread of blood has formed in a crack in her lower lip. I resist drawing her toward me. I know that she could not stand it.
I follow her to your galley kitchen, a chopped-off corner of what had once been the parlor of an elegant house. She puts the bagels on a platter, turns on the kettle. "Tea or coffee?" she asks.
"Whatever you're having."
She scoops green leaves into two mesh balls. Although her white couch and sleigh bed replaced your ratty corduroy couch and mattress on the floor when she'd moved in with you, it still feels like your apartment: the brick-and-board shelves overflowing with books and old records, the crates of unfiled papers, your cheaply framed political prints. Rather than overhauling the place, she has, it seems, carved out areas as her domain — your previously swampy bathroom now meticulously clean with sea-green hand towels and a glass shelf holding an aloe plant, the blue mugs into which she now pours hot water having ousted your drug company and radio station handouts.
She carries the mugs of tea. I follow her into the living room with the platter of bagels. She sits with her legs folded under her on the couch, cradling her cup, and I take the chair across. She rubs her shoulder as she talks. It takes quite a while for me to piece together even the most basic things. I can't tell if the ellipses are because she is editing what she knows or because she, too, is bewildered, but I find myself thinking the way I did when patients would tell me their stories and I learned to let the first version have some breathing room before pushing at the contradictions, before insisting on details.
It started, she tells me, when that boy jumped in front of the train. She calls him Mitch as though he is a frequent subject of discussion between the two of you, this boy dumped on your caseload New Year's Day, over a year ago, when the clinic's other psychiatrist quit and suddenly you were responsible for twice as many patients. From the perfunctory note left about him, you had no clue that he was rapidly decompensating and should not be grouped among the less urgent cases to be seen the following week. No one blamed you. The head of the service said it was fully his responsibility for giving you an unmanageable task. The lawyers skipped right over you to the doctor who'd left the inadequate sign-off note. You'd never even met the boy until his first night in intensive care, by then a double amputee.
"Saul couldn't sleep. His eyes wouldn't even shut. He'd pace in the hallway. I was the one who suggested he take a sleeping pill." She tells me this with the steadiness of someone confessing. I refrain from reassuring her that it was an innocent thing to do, remembering all too well how the reassurances I tried to give you those first weeks after Mitch's jump made you feel worse, lonelier, as if you were the only one who could see your failure — how the nurses' reassurances on the ward that my patient Maria's actions were independent of me (when I knew they were entirely about me) left me unable to work as a psychiatrist anymore.
Every night, she tells me, you took your Nembutals: first one, then two, then four. Convinced that you could not sleep without them, you would wake groggy and then panic that the grogginess would cause another mistake. She doesn't know when you began prescribing for yourself, maybe March, maybe April, only that she discovered it Memorial Day weekend when the two of you went to visit your old supervisor, Sylvia Jacobs, at her house in Montauk.
"Yes, I know her," I say.
Rena looks at me with confusion.
"She was chief resident when I was an intern. Twenty-six with orthopedic shoes. We used to joke that she'd make the Guinness Book of World Records for being the youngest little old lady in the Bronx."
Your wife does not smile. She continues: You were napping on the beach. She'd gone into your camera bag because the sky had filled with flocks of gulls and she'd been overtaken with the desire to photograph Sylvia's wonderful house, set itself like a bird alit on the cliff, with the gulls overhead. She unzipped the inner pocket to get the lens cloth and found instead a candy store of pills: the Dexedrine, Methedrine and Ritalin bottles with her name on them; the phenobarbital, Tuinals and Dalmane with Santiago Domengo's name; the Valium and Librium with yours.
"When I saw those vials, the reality of what had been going on hit me. All those messages from his job on our machine. The nurses calling to say they needed certain orders written. His boss, Dr. Fishkin, asking if Dr. Dubinsky would grace them today with his presence."
Rena removes the mesh ball from her mug. I copy her. "The real clue, I don't know how I hadn't seen it, was Santiago — his message that he hoped Saul and family were not ill. You know Saul never missed his Tuesday nights reading to Santiago. When we got back to the city, I went to stay with Ruth and Maggie. Maggie found a doctor who specializes in treating addicted medical professionals. After I was gone for six nights, Saul agreed to go."
She stands, opens the window a crack. She stretches in front of the window, fingertips reaching toward the ceiling, and for a moment I remember Maria standing in my office before a barred window, stretching her arms up to the green ceiling, the fan whirring above, her thick black braid touching her round plump bottom, and I am disgusted to feel heat in my groin as I recall her bottom and the way her braid swung back and forth like a horse's tail.
"This doctor, Arlen, seemed to help for a while. He detoxed Saul from the sleeping pills. By the end of June, Saul was sleeping without anything. He took up jogging — Arlen recommended it to reduce stress — and started listening at night to these relaxation tapes. Then, in August, I had to go out to Colorado for three weeks to work on the Braner campaign. I think that's when he started up again."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Private Sorcery"
Copyright © 2002 Lisa Gornick.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One Burning Child,
Part Two Potions,
Part Three El Hoyo,
Part Four A Body Rising,
What People are Saying About This
An astonishingly good novel and completely compelling. A Private Sorcery is superbly written and sparkles with intelligence and subtlety. I can't remember a first novel in the last ten years that has impressed me as much as this.
A Private Sorcery is a wonderfully honest book, deeply-felt, with characters carved from the true stuff of what we are. A first-rate novel, all the more surprising since it is Gornick's debut.
A Private Sorcery is a deep, powerful, exciting story that casts a spell on the reader from the opening pages. I was riveted and entranced--and something even more than that: thrilled to be in the presence of an important and authentic new voice.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a page-turner of a book. I started reading and could not put it down. It will teach you a lot about human nature and the way people get themselves stuck in situations that stunt them, but how they can also really change this and become different, fuller people. The author manages to convey this "deep" message through a story that moves quickly and has real excitement in it. She takes you all over the world--very interesting settings. And you learn a lot about psycholanalysis too. One of the best first novels I've ever read.
Attesting to the fact that the past can be preamble to the present first time novelist Lisa Gornick offers an intense picture of a family in crisis. Author/psychoanalyst Gornick, currently on the staff of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, has chosen psychiatrists as two of her central characters. Withdrawn, quiet Saul Dubinsky is a psychiatrist haunted by the attempted suicide of one of his patients. What could he have done to have prevented such a desperate act? Tormented, unable to sleep Saul begins to take pills for relief, increasing his consumption until he becomes addicted to drugs. After a break-in at his hospital's pharmacy Saul is arrested, convicted, and sent to jail. He feels he only deserves what has happened to him. Rena, Saul's wife, is both angry and puzzled. She mentally dismembers their marriage and reluctantly confronts her checkered past. Leonard, Saul's father and a retired psychiatrist, assumes the blame for his son's behavior. There is no help to be found with Saul's attorney brother or support from his mother who spends day and night abed complaining of various psychosomatic disorders. Leonard and Rena at first circle each other as they seek to understand Saul, and then become close in their mutual desire to help the man they both love. Gornick draws powerful opening pages but then slides through morasses of introspection that, at times, tend to be repetitive in establishing the identity of each character. Not much action but a great deal of contemplation. Nonetheless, "A Private Sorcery" is a promising debut.