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The House of God: The Classic Novel of Life and Death in an American Hospital

The House of God: The Classic Novel of Life and Death in an American Hospital

3.8 64
by Samuel Shem, John Updike (Introduction)

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By turns heartbreaking, hilarious, and utterly human, The House of God is a mesmerizing and provocative novel about Roy Basch and five of his fellow interns at the most renowned teaching hospital in the country. 

Struggling with grueling hours and sudden life-and-death responsibilities, Basch and his colleagues, under the leadership of their


By turns heartbreaking, hilarious, and utterly human, The House of God is a mesmerizing and provocative novel about Roy Basch and five of his fellow interns at the most renowned teaching hospital in the country. 

Struggling with grueling hours and sudden life-and-death responsibilities, Basch and his colleagues, under the leadership of their rule-breaking senior resident known only as the Fat Man, must learn not only how to be fine doctors but, eventually, good human beings. 

A phenomenon ever since it was published, The House of God was the first unvarnished, unglorified, and uncensored portrait of what training to become a doctor is truly like, in all its terror, exhaustion and black comedy. With more than two million copies sold worldwide, it has been hailed as one of the most important medical novels ever written.

With an introduction by John Updike 

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The raunchy, troubling, and hilarious novel that turned into a cult phenomenon.  Singularly compelling…brutally honest.”—The New York Times

“Bawdy, blistering…this is Catch-22 with stethoscopes.”—Cosmopolitan

“Wonderfully wild, ribald, erotic, bitter, compassionate…in the same spirit as Catch-22.”—The Seattle Times

“A wildly funny, sad, laugh-out-loud, frightening, outrageous, thought-provoking, moving book…a story of modern medicine rarely, if ever, told.”—The Houston Chronicle

“Does for the practice of medicine what Catch-22 and M*A*S*H did for the practice of warfare.”—The Newark Star-Ledger 

“Mordantly funny, brilliantly ironic…A writer of outstanding substance and style.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt


Except for her sunglasses, Berry is naked. Even now, on vacation in France with my internship year barely warm in its grave, I can't see her bodily imperfections. I love her breasts, the way they change when she lies flat, on her stomach, on her back, and then when she stands, and walks. And dances. Oh, how I love her breasts when she dances. Cooper's ligaments suspend the breasts. Cooper's Droopers, if they stretch. And her pubis, symphasis pubis, the bone under the skin being the real force shaping her Mound of Venus. She has sparse black hair. In the sun, she sweats, the glisten making her tan more erotic. In spite of my medical eyes, in spite of having just spent a year among diseased bodies, it is all I can do to sit calmly and record. The day feels smooth, warm, pebbled with the nostalgia of a sigh. It is so still that a match flame stands upright, invisible in the clear hot air. The green of the grass, the lime-white walls of our rented farm-house, the orange stucco roof edging the August blue sky--it is all too perfect for this world. There is no need to think. There is time for all things. There is no result, there is only process. Berry is trying to teach me to love as once I did love, before the deadening by the year.

I struggle to rest and cannot. Like a missile my mind homes to my hospital, the House of God, and I think of how I and the other interns handled sex. Without love, amidst the gomers and the old ones dying and the dying young, we had savaged the women of the House. From the most tender nursing-school novitiate through the hard-eyed head nurses of the Emergency Room, and even, in pidgin Spanish, to the bangled and whistling Hispanic onesin Housekeeping and Maintenance--we had savaged them for our needs. I think back to the Runt, who had moved from two-dimensional magazine sex into a spine-tingling sexual adventure with a voracious nurse named Angel--Angel, who never ever did, the whole long year, to anyone's knowledge, string together a complete sentence made of real words. And I know now that the sex in the House of God had been sad and sick and cynical and sick, for like all our doings in the House, it had been done without love, for all of us had become deaf to the murmurs of love.

"Come back, Roy. Don't drift off there, now."

Berry. Finishing our lunch, we are almost to the hearts of our artichokes. They grow to enormous size in this part of France. I had trimmed and boiled the artichokes, and Berry had made the vinaigrette. The food here is exquisite. Often we eat in the sun-dappled garden of our restaurant, under the lattice of branches. The starched white linen, delicate crystal, and fresh red rose in the silver vase are almost too perfect for this life. In the corner, our waiter attends, napkin over his arm. His hand trembles. He suffers from a senile tremor, the tremor of a gomer, of all the gomers of the year. As I come to the last leaves of the artichoke, their purple surpassing their edible green, and throw them toward the garbage heap for the farmer's chickens and glass-eyed gomer of a dog, I think about a gomer eating an artichoke. Impossible, unless it were pureed and squirted down the feeding tube. I remove the thistly hairs, green abundant, covering the mound of choke, and come to the heart, and I think back to eating in the House of God, and to the one best at eating, best at medicine, my resident, the Fat Man. The Fat Man shoveling onions and Hebrew National hot dogs and raspberry ice cream into his mouth all at once at the ten-o'clock supper. The Fat Man, with his LAWS OF THE HOUSE and his approach to medicine that at first I thought was sick but that gradually I learned to be the way it was. I see us--hot, sweaty, Iwo Jima-heroic--hovered over a gomer:

"They're hurting us," the Fat Man would say.

"They've got me on my knees," I'd reply.

"I'd commit suicide, but I don't want to make the bastards happy."

And we'd put our arms around each other and cry. My fat genius, always with me when I needed him, but where is he as I need him now? In Hollywood, in Gastroenterology, in bowel runs--as he always put it--"through the colons of the stars." I know now that it was his zany laughter and his caring, and that of the two policemen of the Emergency Room--the two policemen, my Saviors, who seemed to know everything and who almost seemed to know it in advance--that had gotten me through the year. And despite the Fat Man and the policemen, what had happened in the House of God had been fierce, and I had been hurt, bad. For before the House of God, I had loved old people. Now they were no longer old people, they were gomers, and I did not, I could not love them anymore. I struggle to rest, and cannot, and I struggle to love, and I cannot for I'm all bleached out, like a man's shirt washed too many times.

"Since you drift off there so much, maybe you'd rather be back there after all," says Berry sarcastically.

"Love, it's been a bad year."

I sip my wine. I've been drunk much of the time we've been here. I've been drunk in the cafes on market day as the clamor ebbs in the market and flows in the bars. I've been drunk while swimming in our river, at noon the temperature of water, air, and body all the same, so that I can't tell where body ends and water begins and it's a melding of the universe, with the river curling round our bodies, cool and warm rushes intermingling in lost patterns, filling all times and all depths. I swim against the current, looking upstream where the winding riverpath rests in a cradle of willow, rushes, poplar, shadow, and that great master of shadow, the sun. Drunk, I lie in the sun on the towel, watching with blossoming arousal the erotic ballet of the Englishwomen changing into and out of swimsuits, glimpsing an edge of breast, a wisp of pubic hair, as so often I had glimpsed edges and wisps of nurses, as they changed into and out of their costumes before my eyes, in the House. Sometimes, drunk, I ruminate on the state of my liver, and think of all the cirrhotics I have watched turn yellow and die. They either bleed out, raving, coughing up and drowning in blood from ruptured esophageal veins, or, in coma, they slip away, slip blissfully away down the yellow-brick ammonia-scented road to oblivion. Sweating, I tingle, and Berry becomes more beautiful than ever. This wine makes me feel like I'm bathed in amnion, breathless, fed by the motherbloodflow in the umbilical vein, fetal, slippery and tumbling over and over in the warmth of the beating womb, warm amnion, warmnion. Alcohol helped in the House of God, and I think of my best friend, Chuck, the black intern from Memphis, who never was without a pint of Jack Daniel's in his black bag for those extra-bitter times when he was hurt extra bad by the gomers or the slurping House academics, like the Chief Resident or the Chief of Medicine himself, who were always looking at Chuck as illiterate and underprivileged when in fact he was literate and privileged and a better doc than anyone else in the whole place. And in my drunkenness I think that what happened to Chuck in the House was too sad, for he had been happy and funny and now he was sad and glum, broken by them and going around with the same half-angry, half-crushed look in his eyes that I'd noticed Nixon had had yesterday on our French TV, as he stood on the steps of the helicopter on the White House lawn after his resignation, giving a pathetically inappropriate V-for-defeat sign before the doors closed over him, the Filipinos rolled in the red carpet, and Jerry Ford, looking more flabbergasted then awed, put his arm around his wife and walked slowly back to the presidency. The gomers, these gomers . . .

"Damnit, everything makes you think of those gomers," says Berry.

"I hadn't realized that I'd been thinking out loud."

"You never realize it, but these days, you always do. Nixon, gomers, forget about the gomers. There aren't any gomers here."

I know she's wrong. One lazy and succulent day, I am walking by myself from the graveyard at the top of the village, down the catnapping winding road overlooking the chateau, the church, the prehistoric caves, the square, and far below, the river valley, the child's-toy poplars and Roman bridge indicating the road, and the creator of all this, the spawn of the glacier, our river. I have never taken this path before, this path along this ridge. I am beginning to relax, to know what I knew before: the peace, the rainbow of perfections of doing nothing. The country is so lush that the birds can't eat all the ripe blackberries. I stop and pick some. Juicy grit in my mouth. My sandals slap the asphalt. I watch the flowers compete in color and shape, enticing the rape by the bees. For the first time in more than a year I am at peace, and nothing in the whole world is effort, and all, for me, is natural, whole, and sound.

I turn a corner and see a large building, like an asylum or a hospital, with the word "Hospice" over the door. My skin prickles, the little hairs on the back of my neck rise, my teeth set on edge. And there, sure enough, I see them. They have been set out in the sun, in a little orchard. The white of their hair, scattered among the green of the orchard, makes them look like dandelions in a field, gossamers awaiting their final breeze. Gomers. I stare at them. I recognize the signs. I make diagnoses. As I walk past them, their eyes seem to follow me, as if somewhere in their dementia they are trying to wave, or say bonjour, or show some other vestige of humanness. But they neither wave nor say bonjour, nor show any other vestige. Healthy, tan, sweaty, drunk, full of blackberries, laughing inside and fearing the cruelty of that laughter, I feel grand. I always feel grand when I see a gomer. I love these gomers now.

"Well, there may be gomers in France, but you don't have to take care of them."

She goes back to her artichoke, and the vinaigrette accumulates on her chin. She doesn't wipe it off. She's not the type. She enjoys the oily feel of the oil, the vinegar sting. She enjoys her nakedness, her carelessness, her oiliness, her ease. I feel that she's getting excited. Now she looks at me again. Am I saying this out loud? No. As we watch each other, the vinaigrette drips from her chin to her breast. We watch. The vinaigrette explores, oozing slowly down the skinline, heading south toward the nipple. We speculate together, without words, whether it will make it, or if it will veer off, toward cleft or pit. I flip back into medicine, thinking of carcinoma of the axillary nodes. Mastectomy. Statistics crowd in. Berry smiles at me, unaware of my regression toward death. The vinaigrette stays on line, oozes onto the nipple, and hangs. We smile.

"Stop obsessing about the gomers and come lick it off."

"They can still hurt me."

"No, they can't. Come on."

As I put my lips to her nipple, feeling it rise, tasting the sting of the sauce, my fantasy is of a cardiac arrest. The room is crowded, and I am one of the last to arrive. On the bed is a young patient, intubated, being breathed by the respiratory tech. The resident is trying to put in a big intravenous line, and the medical student is running round and round the bed. Everyone in the room knows that the patient is going to die. Kneeling on the bed, giving closed-chest cardiac massage, is one of the intensive-care nurses, a redhead with great thighs and big tits, from Hawaii. Tits from Hawaii. It had been her patient, and she had been first to arrive at the arrest. I stand in the doorway and watch: her white skirt has ridden up her legs so that as she bends over the patient, she flaunts her ass. She wears flowered bikini panties. I can almost see the petals through the seams of the white stretch pantyhose. I think of Hawaii. Up and down, up and down her ass is moving up and down in the middle of all the blood and vomit and urine and crap and people. Waves of surf on volcanic beaches up and down up and down. Fantastic plush limousine of an ass. I go up to her and put my hand on it. She turns and sees who it is and smiles and says Oh hi Roy and keeps on pumping. I massage her ass as she moves up and down, around and around my hand goes. I whisper something raunchy in her ears. I take both hands and pull down her pantyhose, and then pull her panties down to her knees. She beats on the body. I take my hands, and slip one into her crotch and run the other down the inside of her thighs up and down and up and down in time to the chest compressions of the resuscitation. She takes her free hand and undoes the buttons of my white pants and grabs my erect penis. The tension is incredible. There are shouts for "adrenaline!" and "the defibrillator!"

Finally they're ready to put the paddles of the defibrillator on the patient's chest, to shock the dying heart. Someone shouts: "Everybody off the bed!" and the Hawaiian slides down onto my penis.

"Shock him!"


They shock the patient. The body convulses up off the bed as the muscles contract from the 300 volts, but the cardiac monitor is flat line. The heart is dead. An intern, the Runt, enters the room. The patient is his patient. He seems upset. He looks like he's about to burst into tears. Then he sees the Hawaiian and me going at it, and his eyes show his surprise. I turn to him and say:

"Cheer up, Runt, it's impossible to be depressed with an erection."

The fantasy ends with the young patient dead and all of us consoling ourselves in sex on the blood-slippery floor, singing as we rocket toward orgasm:

"I wanna go back to my little grass shack in Kooala-kahoo Ha-WAAAAA--EEEEEEEE! . . ."

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Fascinating." —-The Wall Street Journal

Meet the Author

Samuel Shem is a novelist, playwright, and, for three decades, a member of the Harvard Medical School faculty. His novels include The House of God, Mount Misery, and Fine. He is coauthor with his wife, Janet Surrey, of the hit Off-Broadway play Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (winner of the 2007 Performing Arts Award of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence), and We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Men and Women.

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The House of God 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 64 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a classic tale from the 1970's by Dr. Samuel Shem (pen name). It's considered a Must Read for anyone considering medical school and being a doctor. As a physician myself, I often recommend this book to my pre med and medical students. It still resonates today, after introducing such controversial terms as "Gomer," short for Get Out of My Emergency Room. It's a fun, but dark read that depicts the hospital as a partial sexual madhouse. Overall I don't think real life is quite as dramatic as the fiction presented by Dr. Shem here, but it's still an absolute must read for anyone interested in being a doctor. The only knock on HOG is that it's now a bit outdated. Because of this, I also recommend my students read two more recent books, "In Stitches" by Dr. Anthony Youn and "Monday Mornings" by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Both are famous TV doctors, but Dr. Youn's book is a memoir while Dr. Gupta's book is fiction. "In Stitches" is funny and covers one doctor's harrowing four years in medical school. I loved this one. "Monday Mornings" is more serious, and covers attending doctors and M&M conferences. Both are new must-reads for pre meds and med students alike, in my opinion.
TheJazzDoctor More than 1 year ago
OMG....this is my second purchase of this classic. I am so impressed with it from the perspective of practicing emergency physician who has literally seen it all in the past 41 years. It has prompted me to write my own memoirs.....still in process. The Jazz Doctor
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am an emergency nurse for over 20 years. I am now buying this book for my daughter who will be attending medical school. This book will never go out of date!
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Awesome book, have ready it several times and it is never boring. After working in the medical profession, the book is "RIGHT ON"
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A grrat look at the workings of medicine. Scarey.
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