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March 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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I’ve probably had more than a dozen root canals in my tooth-decayed life, and, typically, my strategy has involved naming both teams in the World Series since 1951 and, where possible, the starting lineups of the champs (oddly, I’m much better the farther back I go in time). For example, I have no idea why I can still recite the batting order of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and three of the team’s starting pitchers (Bob Buhl always gives me trouble, but I get to him eventually). The problem with this approach is that I work my way through the list too quickly. I usually move on to naming the musicians in Duke Ellington’s orchestra in the 1930s and ’40s, but this, too, leaves me with plenty of time to ponder rubber dams.
Take my recent root canal, just two days ago—the perfect start to a Presidents’ Day weekend. The endodontist, who wasn’t even close to born when Bob Buhl was pitching, was still just warming up, trying out different-sized tools with which to “root” about in my jawbone, and I was already running out of stuff to think about. That’s when I turned my mind to the matter of dentists in fiction. There are more than you think, but it’s mostly a motley crew. Let’s start with McTeague, the dentist hero of Frank Norris’ 1899 novel, also called McTeague. Norris, like Theodore Dreiser, was a leading proponent of the nineteenth-century literary movement called naturalism, which was an early (and not so stylish) precursor of what we now call noir: life is a bitch, Norris tells us, and it takes its inevitable toll on poor saps like McTeague, who goes from being an everyday San Francisco dentist to a greed-crazed killer, eventually winding up handcuffed to one of his victims in Death Valley, where he dies of thirst. I’m thinking he had trouble swallowing, too, near the end.
Then there’s Doc Holliday, the dentist of choice in the Wild West and a character in numerous movies and novels, most recently two outstanding historical novels by Mary Doria Russell, Doc (2012) and Epitaph (2015). Of course, Holliday is known more for his proficiency with a six-shooter than his skill with a dentist’s drill, so it’s little surprise that Russell doesn’t linger on scenes of him crafting dentures on his Bunsen burner. If what you’re looking for is dentists at work in fiction, there’s really only one place to go, and be forewarned, it’s a not a place you want to go if you happen to be anywhere near a dentist’s chair. I’m talking about William Goldman’s Marathon Man (1974), in which the idea of dentists as torturers comes to life. My guess is you closed your eyes during the scene from the 1976 movie version in which Laurence Olivier, as the evil dentist, uses a high-speed drill on Dustin Hoffman, sans Novocain.
There are a few more examples of novels starring dentists, but, generally, they focus almost entirely on their heroes’ lives out of the office. I’m a big fan of Rick Boyer’s entertaining Doc Adams mystery series, about an oral surgeon who does a little amateur sleuthing on the side, and certainly the most accomplished literary novel about a dentist is Dave Eggers’ Heroes of the Frontier (2016), about an Ohio dentist who takes her two children on a life-changing road trip to Alaska.
That’s all well and good, I mused, as Doogie Howser continued to forage in my seemingly bottomless canal, but if I want a story about a dentist being a dentist, I’d better forget fiction and look to my own family. You see, both my father and grandfather were dentists. Let’s skip my father, whom I’ve always believed took out his frustrations with my various misdeeds on my teeth (“You won’t need novocaine on this one”), and, instead, talk briefly about my grandfather, a dentist in Gresham, Oregon, who would venture once a month up a corduroy road in his Model T to offer his services to loggers living in the woods near Mt. Hood. His patients would stand by the road, usually with kerchiefs tied around their aching mouths, waiting for the dentist. Doc Ott would give these hardy souls a healthy shot of bootleg whiskey, smear a little more of the stuff on their gums, and get to work, which usually meant pulling the offending tooth on the spot.
I have inherited one artifact from my grandfather’s career, and it sits proudly in my office today: the wooden instrument case he took on those forays up to Mt. Hood. It no longer holds the various pointy tools of the dentist’s trade; now it’s a repository for paper clips and pencils, with a small stack of vintage paperbacks sitting on top—evidence that I took after my English-teacher mother rather than the toothy side of the family.
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