4 out of 4 stars
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McDowell by William H. Coles tells the story of a world-class surgeon, mountain climber and harmonica player as his perfect life unravels. Hiram McDowell appears to be the master of his own fate. He works hard building his reputation as a surgeon and philanthropist. He sees himself as someone who conquers mountains and helps the poor until a series of choices lead him to a crossroad in his life. As he descends into self-pity he begins a painful journey into self-knowledge.
I give the book 4 out of 4 stars. The style of Cole’s writing is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor, clean and spare with moments of great beauty. There were scenes in the second half of the book (especially the section set in New Orleans) that were lyrical and conveyed McDowell’s progress on his journey. It isn’t a satisfying book to read. I think that would defeat its purpose, which is to open the reader to meditate about life and what it all means.
In the first half of the book, Cole gives us a McDowell defined by modern existence and alienation. He is alienated from others as he seeks intimacy, but also from himself as he tries to use his achievements to fill the gaping hole at his core. He seems successful, but his children’s lives are a mess. And then the mirror flips for the second half of the story as McDowell’s life falls apart and his children grow up and put the pieces of their lives back together.
The second half of the novel also focuses on McDowell’s memoir almost to the point of obsession. It seemed to represent his life. Others try to write their versions of his life, as well. Even at the end they are still discussing and arguing about the best way to tell his story until it becomes clear that no one really knows what that is. They can only tell what they knew of him. But is that all there is to the man? The best they can do is to try to connect the dots on his journey, even though they know they’re missing most of the dots.
The strongest aspect of the book, and the part I enjoyed most were his strong characterizations. Most of the characters are well formed. There were some exceptions, however, such as Maxine, the investigator who seemed to be little more than a cipher. But so many of the other characters that McDowell encounters on his travels were fully formed even though they each appear for a short time. It was delightful watching his daughter Sophie transform from a stunted misfit that struggled in her father’s shadow into a grown woman in charge of her own destiny.
McDowell is one of those books that is hard to classify. It will appeal to those who enjoy literary fiction, especially fans of Flannery O'Connor. And yet, I recommend it to anyone interested in the workings of the human heart. We don’t all climb Mt. Everest, but McDowell’s hopes and dreams are something we can all understand.
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