Exley: A Novel
By Brock Clarke
Hardcover, 320 pages
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
List Price: $24.95
Doctor's Notes (Entry 4)
After three unproductive — unproductive and, indeed, counterproductive — meetings with M., I try a new approach and ask the patient if he has ideas as to how I might help him. M. considers this for several moments and then makes an odd request: that I become a different doctor, with a different name, a different manner of speaking and dressing. Even a different hairstyle. Even a beard. M. goes so far as to suggest — suggest and, indeed, encourage — specific things for me to say at certain moments during our meeting: when I first greet the patient, after the patient tells me his most innermost thoughts and fears, when I say good-bye to the patient, etc. Strangely, I agree. Possibly because M. is onto something. Possibly because normal strategies seem not to be working. Possibly because M. is right: possibly a change in doctoring is in order. Possibly Dr. Horatio Pahnee (the name M. has given me) will be able to heal M. whereas I have failed. In any case, I shall think of it as a study — a study and, indeed, a clinical study; if findings are satisfactory, I will present them during my speech at the North Country Mental Health Professionals’ annual meeting later this autumn.
After our meeting, I open the front door to let M. out. I am about to exclaim our newly agreed-upon good-bye when I see the patient’s mother sitting on the porch railing. I have not seen her since our first session, and my arm and arm hair tingle wildly. She and I exchange conventional greetings. She kisses her son on the top of the head and then asks him if he wouldn’t mind waiting in the car, just for a second. M. walks to the car; as he does so, he looks at me over his shoulder. I know how to read his look, and I look back, to tell him I will not betray his confidences. When he is in the car, M.’s mother asks, "How’s it going?"
"Not well," I answer truthfully. I do not want to tell her the rest of the truth — that we’ve had something of a breakthrough today — because then she will ask for details about the breakthrough and I fear I will tell her.
"Oh," she says. She looks sadly at the car. Her sadness seems genuine. This is not my area of expertise, exactly, but I believe her to be a good mother. I almost touch her on the arm as she touched me on the arm, to console her. But I fear that my touch won’t tingle her arm as hers tingled mine, and how unbearably sad that would be. She looks back at me. She is still sad about M. Sad, she is still beautiful. "Do you think there’s anything else you could do?" she asks.
"Such as?" I ask. I genuinely want to know. Please help me, I almost say but don’t, as it would be unprofessional in a mental health professional.
"You’ve already read..." And she names the book with which M.’s father was obsessed, causing, I believe, his son’s obsession, although M. claims not even to have read the book, let alone be obsessed with it. I glanced at the first chapter, and so I know the book is of local origin. Or at least the author is "from around here" (I myself am from Rochester, a veritable metropolis when compared to Watertown). But other than that, I haven’t read the book. I almost tell M.’s mother that and then suggest she read my article in the official proceedings from last year’s North Country Mental Health Professionals’ meeting, which suggests that whereas in the past, people turned to literature to improve their lives, they now turn to their mental health professionals. But clearly she expects me already to have read the book, especially since she gave me a copy of the book after M.’s last session. So I say, "I have read the book." I try to make my voice as noncommittal as possible, but M.’s mother hears something in it — perhaps what she wants to hear — and says, "I know, it’s awful." M.’s mother sighs, through her nose, and it sounds light and musical. It is my professional opinion that mental health professionals should never, ever use the word "crazy" to describe their patients, or anyone else for that matter. But it occurs to me that M.’s father must be crazy — crazy and, indeed, insane — to leave someone like M.’s mother. "I worry so much about M.," she says. "Do you have any other ideas?"
"I have a few ideas," I say, again noncommittally. M.’s mother waits, I believe for me to list the ideas. When I do not, she says: "Well, do you think you should follow M. or something?"
"Follow him?" I say. I try not to sound offended, although I am. Because I don’t want M.’s mother to think I’m a man who is easily offended. Unless she likes men, or mental health professionals, who are easily offended. "I am a mental health professional, not a private detective."
M.’s mother doesn’t reply. She just looks at me with her deep, deep black eyes. M. has described to me these eyes and their effect. I believe that M.’s mother respects me for standing my professional ground. I also believe that I will end up being a private detective, if that’s what M.’s mother really wants me to be.
Excerpted from Exley: A Novel by Brock Clarke. Copyright 2010 by Brock Clarke. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing.