Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Savage Scalpel by Alain Rothstein (1968)

Perhaps an ordinary person would take a look at the goofy cover of Alain Rothstein's 1968 novel The Savage Scalpel and say: "That looks pretty bad. I'm not going to read it." I, on the other hand, said "That looks pretty bad! I'm going to read it!" Sometimes when I say that, the books end up being pretty good. Sometimes they are at least funny. This one was honestly one of the most poorly written books I have ever read. There was some entertainment in that, but that is about as far as it went. Here are some unconnected thoughts on the book:

1. The back of the book promises: "A brand-new dimension in reading experience -- for those who are willing to risk treading to the edge of appalling sensation!" I fear that might have been over-selling it...

2. Plot description: Frank Young, a big-shot psychiatrist, and his best friend Mel, a former attendant at the institution where Frank worked, band together to solve the murder of Frank's half-sister. She was brutally tortured by the mob and found murdered in her New York apartment after Frank and Mel returned from a two-year trip overseas to help Frank forget about the death of his fiance, who was killed in a car accident by two mobsters fleeing a robbery. These mob events are not related, except to highlight that Rothstein does not like the mob. In the end, Frank and Mel decide to take matters into their own hands and torture members of the mob to find out what happened to Frank's sister.

3. This will give you a sense of Rothstein's smooth exposition, when Frank first meets Mel: "I thank you my friend," he said. "And I admire your nonconformity. Do you know, I went to the University of Pennsylvania for four years for my M.D., after my undergraduate years. Then there were two years as an intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York. After that, two years as a resident in neuropsychiatry at the state mental hospital, followed by a chief residency in neurology at the best university hospital in Manhattan. Now I'm a fellow in neuropsychiatry here at the Retreat. But in all those years, nobody on the staff of any of those institutions -- but nobody -- ever called me 'Doc' before."

4. This will give you a sense of the uncomfortable sex scenes: They made love then, without bothering to remove all their clothes. Easily, almost lazily, at first, they embraced, exploring each other's body with caressing fingers and lips, then began the rhythm of the dance of life. Okay, reading this book was totally worth it for the phrase "the rhythm of the dance of life."

5. There are about 20 pages in the middle of the book that were definitely written for another purpose and possibly written by another author (Frank gets a call from a former lover who reads about his sister in the paper, then he reminisces about their affair in a coherent and decently-written fashion before returning to the incoherent and poorly written story).

6. The "Brutal, violent, slashing!" torture climax is.... boring. Frank tortures two of the mobsters by using his medical knowledge to dissect them in front of some other mobsters. That is admittedly pretty brutal, but instead of creating any tension or gore, Rothstein actually has Frank give us an anatomy lesson and basically just types a few paragraphs from a medical text book with the occasional groan thrown in.

I could go on and on (which, I suppose, is one reason to read the book), but overall this was an uncomfortable read with inconsistent characters and clunky writing. I guess you can't win them all....

1 comment:

Nimble said...

Amazing. I don't think there was much chance before but now I can *plan* to never read that book. When I start a terrible book sometimes I have to finish it to see just how terrible it will get. And I have to exclaim about it repeatedly which makes my husband say, "Then why are you still reading it?!" I have a feeling that you understand why.