Death is the unspoken hero in this pair of novels, one with its terse, masculine title, the other festively evoking Jane Austen. Diane Johnson’s book is, surprisingly, a comedy about death, how death rules social life, a comedy incongruously set in a hospital. Peter Matthiessen’s novel is about murder, and the consequences of the power to murder, not only the murder of other people, but the murder of thoughts and feelings and the natural world, as a coastal Florida community of small farmers, fishermen, and plume hunters is paralyzed by Mister Watson’s presence, and corrupted in subtle ways. It is also about the macabre glamour with which people can invest a man who has killed. In Matthiessen’s book, the murderer is the prince of a black fairy tale; his crimes, whether they are real or imaginary, have a mesmerizing effect on his community, like the fascination of witnessing achieved desires, happy endings. For Matthiessen’s people, death holds the urgent mystery that sex does for children. They are transfixed by Watson’s casual power over life and death. It makes him seem superhuman.
Killing Mister Watson is based on a murder that occurred at the turn of the century in the swampy Ten Thousand Islands region in Florida, when a band of twenty or so of Mister Watson’s neighbors gunned down their island’s most prominent citizen. The incident took place in Chokoloskee, Florida, bordering the Everglades, a remote, sparsely populated area that was a refuge for many people who had good reasons to leave where they came from. One of Matthiessen’s characters asks, “With all of Florida to choose from, who else would come to these overflowed rain-rotted islands?” Peter Matthiessen researched the book in southwest Florida, interviewing descendants of people involved in the Watson killing, although as he points out in an author’s note, there are “few hard ‘facts’—census and marriage records, dates on gravestones, and the like…. The book is in no way ‘historical,’ since almost nothing here is history.” Matthiessen tells us that “It is my hope and strong belief that this reimagined life contains much more of the truth of Mister Watson than the lurid and popularly accepted ‘facts’ of the Watson legend.”
Matthiessen tells Watson’s story through invented eyewitness accounts, interspersed with a few interludes in the voice of a contemporary historian of the region. The shifting facts from version to version, and the pervasive impression that these men don’t know with any certainty themselves why they killed Watson dramatizes Matthiessen’s sense that history is part illusion. It is a history made even more elusive by its setting in the last frontier of Florida, a place of few records, few conventions, and little law. Matthiessen’s frontier is not an incentive to heroic civilization building, but a place where a limiting and insistent individualism makes community nearly impossible.
The region fits the people who live in it. “To the casual stranger,” writes Matthiessen’s regional historian of the Ten Thousand Islands, “each and every part of the region looks exactly like the rest; each islet and water passage seems but the counterpart of hundreds of others. Even those…familiar with its tortuous channels often get lost…wandering hopeless for days among its labyrinthine ways.” It is as difficult in this part of southern Florida to know who you are as to know where you are. This is a world where the names of places shift with ownership. One piece of land which figures in the book was once an Indian village:
They may have been the last wild band of Mikasuki under Arpeika, called Sam Jones, or perhaps a remnant of the “Spanish Indians.” In the late Eighties Pavioni, as the Indians called it, was occupied by Richard Hamilton, who sold his claim to a Frenchman,…who sold it in turn to a fugitive.
The same piece of land appears and disappears like Brigadoon.
Ancestry is as indeterminate as geography; Richard Hamilton, the head of a clan that lives on property near Watson’s, is sometimes identified as a mulatto, a Choctaw, or Spanish Indian, depending on who is describing him and for what purpose. And the natural character of the region changes too, as during the course of the book, from the 1880s to 1910, the abundant fish and exotic birds of the region are exhausted by sportsmen, their local guides, and plume hunters. Both the wealthy tourists and the locals who guide them to their prey lay waste to the country, sharing a childish assumption that its resources are infinite. A part of the nation is destroyed by its own ignorance and greed. Matthiessen is famous for his sense of place, and the demands of this eerie, elusive country challenge him to a brilliant display of his gifts.
Matthiessen’s hero, E.J. (or E.A., a name he dropped as a fugitive from justice) Watson, was born in South Carolina to a father who was “a sometime state prison employee,” whose brutal behavior broke up his family, driving his wife and children to North Florida. Watson settles in North Florida, eventually marries and has a son; after his first wife’s death, Watson has a fight with her brother over money; he does not admit to the murder of the brother, but a warrant is issued for his arrest, and he escapes by night with his second wife and their children, heading west. He settles “in Injun Country…the first place he felt safe, because there was next to no law.” There he is arrested but never tried for the murder of Belle Starr, “the female Jesse James.” Afterward, he is jailed as a horse thief, “framed by Belle Starr’s horse-thief friends, the way he figured it.” He escapes, and arrives in Florida to farm, after killing a man named Quinn Bass in a saloon. By the time Watson arrives in the town of Chokoloskee in the 1890s—a place he chooses, because in his own words, “South Florida was the last place left where a man could farm in peace and quiet, and no questions asked”—he has ricocheted from one part of the country to the other in flight from murder charges and lynching parties, a “wanted man in Arkansas and also…in north Florida.” His criminal career is complicated and ambiguous; he admits to only one murder, but appears to take pride in implying his responsibility for others.
When it is expedient Watson makes speeches with a leading citizen tone: “If the Ten Thousand Islands have a future,…and I, for one, aim to see to it that they do, then those who place themselves above the law have no place in a decent law-abiding community.” At other times, his handyman reports, he “would brag around Key West how he took care of Belle Starr and her foreman when they came gunning for him…. Hinted as how he’d took care of a few,…but claimed he’d never killed nobody less they meant him harm.”
Watson’s contemporaries, among them some of the employees on his sugarcane farm, the local postmaster’s wife, other Chokoloskee farmers, and Watson’s own daughter, Carrie, tell the story of his life and of their encounters with him. Matthiessen maneuvers the country speech with variable success; the limitations of backwoods grammar can make the speakers’ stories of Watson run together repetitively. Sometimes, too, the prose takes on a stagy lyricism, a Stephen Fosterish note creeps in: “And of course there weren’t no place to go, not in the Islands. At night there was only cold, cold stars, so high beyond us, and the awful tangle of black limbs, owl hoot and heron squawk, the slap of mullet faraway down that lonesome river.”
But when it comes to life, the meandering talk subject to few rules, liberal with the obscenity that represents in these parts untrammeled freedom of speech, is Matthiessen’s meditation on the mysterious way in which where people live helps to create what they are. Here, a Chokoloskee fisherman helps bury a farmer Watson may have murdered:
I went to the boat, took a deep breath, and grabbed [him] under the arms, got him hoisted up a little, leaking…. In the sun he was warm on the outside, but under that warmth this fair-haired boy was cold, stiff, smelly meat, like some sun-crusted old porpoise on the tide line.
To find a common truth in this dense tangle of Watson anecdotes is like navigating in a Florida mangrove swamp.
Despite Watson’s dangerous reputation, he wins the admiration of the Chokoloskee locals as a talented farmer, and becomes prosperous, able to send his children to school in Fort Myers on the proceeds of his Island Pride cane syrup. But he is largely an emblem of the ruthless American entrepreneur, for whom profit overrides all other considerations, whether of land or people. Frank B. Tippins, the local sheriff, and Henry Thompson, Watson’s handyman, among others, mention Watson’s ambitious plans to make the region a center for coastal shipping by dredging out the mouth of the Chatham River, and most of the murder victims associated with Watson were fighting him over property or wages. Jean LeChevallier, an émigré ornithologist, calls him “the Emperor” because of his eagerness for power over both people and the environment itself.
And he relishes casual sadism; introducing himself to LeChevallier by shooting his hat out of his hand, displaying marksmanship by shooting half the mustache off a deputy sheriff, cutting a man’s throat in a bar in an argument over a land claim. Matthiessen’s Mister Watson is part of a savage strain in American literature that D.H. Lawrence identified in his Studies in Classic American Literature, in works like Moby-Dick, Poe’s horror stories, Hawthorne’s tales of tortured sexuality, and in Fenimore Cooper’s pioneer, Natty Bumppo. “He lives by death,” writes Lawrence of Fenimore Cooper’s hero, and implicitly of the American character. “All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”
Watson runs away from Chokoloskee after the particularly grisly murder of a young farmer, whose heart is shot out of his body, and his pregnant wife, who have defied Watson over another land claim. The young woman is found floating in a backwater, covered with black mud snails: “Them snails was moving as they fed, they was pretty close to finished with Bet’s face. Weren’t no blue eyes to reproach us, thanks to Jesus, and no red lips neither.” Watson makes his guilt seem irrefutable to the locals by running away before he can be questioned. When he shows up again five years later and more murders occur on his property, a band of the local men confront him. Here again, motive and outcome are ambiguous; by some accounts, the men are determined to kill him, by others to question him. They do question him, but after he makes what appears to them to be a move toward his shotgun, they slaughter him, riddling his body with bullets well after he is dead.
Matthiessen, in choosing to tell Mister Watson’s story through Watson’s neighbors and employees, has painstakingly constructed a world in which no one’s account, either of Watson or himself, can be fully credible; each citizen’s view of Mister Watson, like each citizen’s actions toward him, depends on his relationship to Mister Watson, his needs and beliefs and personality. But we never learn what Watson’s own view of them is, although he mentions the diary he keeps to his daughter. So the haziness of Watson’s behavior comes to seem less a matter of mystery than of the author’s withholding.
Writing a novel is something like playing a chess game; what you construct may defy the outcome you had intended; here it is Matthiessen’s own central figure who immobilizes his novel. Watson himself makes the story-telling static, since he has such a limited range, alternately trigger-happy and capriciously jovial.
In order to dramatize the undercurrent of corruption in Chokoloskee that enthralls the community with Watson’s wealth and murderous power, Matthiessen overloads Mister Watson with mythical weight. The melodramatic poetry of the prologue—“Sea birds are aloft again, a tattered few. The white terns…wander the thick waters with sad muted cries, hunting signs and sea marks that might return them to the order of the world”—makes Watson’s coming death seem too portentous, a kind of ritual killing of a Fisher King. He is relentlessly idealized, although negatively; Mister Watson is given top billing, down to being called “Mister”; all the other men in the book are merely “Mr.” His stature is so exaggerated that instead of seeing how he attracts and reveals what is hidden, dubious, or corrupt in the other citizens, we see their response to him as a kind of respect for a perverse superior; by the time we reach the end, Watson and his murders and his death have so overshadowed any other ongoing life in the book that his being gunned down seems almost an act of wild deference. There is little sense of the reality of this community; it exists to discuss Mister Watson.
To convey the awe of the community, Matthiessen tends to oversell Mister Watson. LeChevallier exclaims, “This man is not vermins ordinaire, he is other thing, he is…!’ Chevelier struggled for the word,…. ‘He is—accurs-ed?”‘ When a savage hurricane hits the Florida coast not long after some bloody murders on Watson’s property, one narrator writes,
In the ruin and silence on the land, no one could doubt that Satan had reared His ugly head…. All these signs from Heaven and Earth could only be God’s wrath at E.J. Watson, and maybe the Lord God Almighty had worse up His sleeve….
Watson is such an Ubermensch that only God is his moral equal. Matthiessen may have intended us to reflect on our common capacity for evil, but instead we are confronted with a moral class division. Crackers are not capable of truly majestic evil like Watson’s; they come off somehow exempt because even acting collectively, they seem puny and minor compared to Watson.
Watson, though, is not by any means the most memorable character in the novel, and in order to justify the exhaustive pages expended on tales of his deeds and sayings (we are even told of his “old-time feel for hogs”), the various narrators have to tell us, to the point of badgering, how fascinating they found him. One says, “Say what you like about Mister Watson, he looked and acted like our idea of a hero. Stood there shining in the sun in a white linen suit….” A man describes him: “What I see…is the stiff muzzle, the bald unblinking eyes, of a turned bear, a transfixed visage like a block of hairy wood—like an ancient spirit mask of the Calusas, drained of all expression.” That seems pretty fancy talk from a character who earlier embarrasses himself in company by miscalling “heretics” “hairy dicks.”
And the violence itself seems mechanical, since it creates no conflict in him, raises no question. He seems to have no doubts or regrets about the way he lives, no hesitation in his fury. When he does reflect, it is with a simplistic cynicism: “Here’s the lesson I learned, and I learned it well, and it stood me in good stead all my life: No decent American is going to believe that a man who pays his bills is a common criminal, no matter what!” Watson is a privileged character in the novel, but there seems no reason to give his judgment more credence than any other character’s. We haven’t got the information to judge whether or not Mister Watson is guilty of many murders he is accused of, but while his actions are ambiguous, his character, free of conflict about his seemingly inexplicable and motiveless love of violence, doesn’t present real contradictions.
The chatty fictional historian, whose accounts of Watson are interspersed with the eyewitness observers’, locates the contradiction in Watson’s domestic qualities—what makes Watson “so fascinating” he says, is that “by all accounts, Edgar Watson was a good husband and a loving father, an expert and dedicated farmer, successful businessman, and generous neighbor.” But of course the historian must be considered unreliable too, since we are told by Watson’s oldest son that Watson virtually deserts his family, not sending for them until his wife contacts him. He also has children with two other women, all of whom he abandons with no apparent scruple.
Watson is meant to be, like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a man who is both himself and a symbol of himself, half man, half local fable. But the stories we hear about Kurtz come from a motley assortment of people in a variety of relationships to Kurtz, and his final encounter with the narrator, Marlowe, is a meeting with an equal. No narrator in Matthiessen’s books is Mister Watson’s social or financial equal since they all either work for him or have less property or education; this community of inferiors is too awed by Mister Watson to imagine him, so he cannot really come to life. All the narrators stand in the same inferior relation to him. Significantly, the family member who is given a voice here is not his wife, or lover, but his timid, self-deprecating daughter, who can only marvel at the “strong vigorous mettlesome man” who is her father, “our strange dear fierce Scots Highlands hothead.”
If there is a vacuum at the center of the book, there are some brilliant figures on the periphery, of whom the most vivid is Jean LeChevallier (pronounced “Shovel-leer” by the Floridians, a French “ornithologue” as he calls himself, who is a far more ambiguous creation than Watson. LeChevallier is the most educated character in the novel, but he is not one of the narrators. We see the two men in contact only once, during a momentary encounter when Watson shoots LeChevallier’s hat out of his hand for the hell of it. Later LeChevallier is found dead after a visit from Watson, after which Watson claims land the Frenchman had promised to a local fisherman’s children who have cared for him. But we never hear them in conversation.
LeChevallier is both a destructive hunter censured by the Audubon Society and a dedicated naturalist, whose specimens are collected by natural history museums. He is a misanthrope because he is a humanist, a man in exile who knows more about the local Indian languages and cultures than the natives of the region. He has devoted his life to knowledge, but cannot make anyone he meets grasp what he says to them. An intellectual descendant of the Encyclopedists, he tries to convince a Floridian that God is an anthropomorphic creation:
“That old man might point quick at the sun, point at a silver ripple in the water, saying, “Look quick! See there? That is God! That is le Grand Mee-staire!”
The Floridian explains, “He meant ‘Big Mister,’ case you don’t speak French.” In him, Matthiessen brings to life the experience of European chroniclers of the American wilderness, like the earlier La Salle, or the naturalist Charles-Alexandre LeSueur. LeChevallier is seduced by the country’s beauty, disgusted by its ignorance, caught in love and hate of the beautiful world that will destroy him. Here, Matthiessen stops the mythologizing that strains his writing about Watson, and creates myth. Matthiessen labors so hard to transform Watson into legend that the character evaporates, a collection of stories about a story. But myth gets its effects in just the opposite way, by making fantasy mercilessly real. If children fantasize about marrying their parents, myth focuses not on the fantasy, but on the reality, telling the story of one who really does. Matthiessen achieves this with the creation of LeChevallier, a figure unlike any other I know in American literature, who concentrates in himself the excitement of a new way to imagine a part of American history.
Diane Johnson’s Health and Happiness is a comic novel about human efforts to achieve these conditions when everyone is living in a state of unforeseeable risk, when physical luck is so nearly arbitrary. Set in a San Francisco hospital, Health and Happiness follows the Jane Austen model of telling its story through contrasting couples.
Ivy Tarro, a young and beautiful recent mother, is admitted into the hospital after her right arm suddenly swells alarmingly, and diagnosed as having a “blood clot of unknown origin.” Her doctor, Bradford Evans, chooses to treat the clot aggressively with a risky drug, which may or may not cause the ensuing complications that end in Ivy’s having a stroke while under anaesthesia. Her illness and her subsequent slow recovery in the Alta Buena hospital have consequences as unpredictable for other people as they do for her. The hospital’s chief of medicine, Philip Watts, who falls in love with her at first when she is more or less unconscious, loses his marriage and is forced to resign his newly won research job at Stanford when a Chinese intern, trapped in the file room of Philip’s office, witnesses Philip’s and Ivy’s lovemaking. Wei-chi, whose foreignness casts him in the traditional comic role of the wise fool, the helpless truth-teller, lets the information slip during a discussion of Chinese versus Western medical ethics.
“We need very much to catch up to Western medicine, and we acknowledge this, but some things are better…for instance, in China the doctors would not be permitted to enjoy the women patients….” Seeing the alert, fascinated expressions come over the faces of his companions, he stopped. They leaned toward him.
“You mean, unlike here?” asked Brian Smeed.
“Perhaps it is only the head doctor?”
The couple who serve as foil to Ivy and Philip are Ivy’s doctor. Bradford Evans, who in the course of nearly killing his patient regains an old romance with Mimi Franklin, the coordinator of the hospital’s volunteer services. Johnson subtly shows how communal what looks like an individual illness really is, affecting not only friends but strangers, not only caretakers but healthy passers-by. Ivy’s illness is not only a medical case, but a form of instruction, as a hot debate over her treatment splits the medical faculty and interns. It is an illness that becomes a romance, in a witty reversal of literary tradition; illness, Johnson suggests, creates an anti-world, like the science-fiction convention of experiencing another planet. Ivy’s illness deforms her ordinary life and reshapes it, along with the lives of the people it involves with her.
The hospital is an otherworldly way station where doctors have to try to think like God and act like human beings, working in a profession in which there is no forgiveness for human frailty. The hospital tone about death is different from the outer world’s. In Johnson’s Alta Buena, death and medicine are like unfriendly governments; some threats will not be tolerated, others will be approached with diplomatic compromises.
During Philip Watts’s comments to the younger doctors on his rounds, he says, “When someone was likely to linger painfully, they used to put them in a certain corridor…—this corridor was cold and open, and they’d get pneumonia. We called pneumonia the old man’s friend.” At another moment, Watts reprimands a young doctor who has revived a patient with chronic heart failure, ignoring the patient’s written request.
“I couldn’t just stand there and let him die,” Perry protested.
“But that’s your job!” said Philip. “Sometimes,” he added, more gently. “Often.”
Johnson is an amusing observer of hospital sociology; at Alta Buena, “All the doctors, but especially the women, were festooned with stethoscopes slung around their necks, and beepers, to avoid being taken for nurses.” She pokes fun at the territorial conflicts between specialties, especially between the medical staff and the surgeons, who seem to have roughly the same relations as policemen and vigilantes. And Johnson’s hospital slapstick catches the absurdity in the difference of scale between individual lives and manners and the death they have to confront; it is the note of Shakespeare’s “That’s a valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion.” Here Philip Watts rescues the woman he is half in love with from the operating table, where she has been taken in error.
“What are you doing?” Philip struggled for a calm, collegial tone. The operating-room nurse instinctively grabbed Mrs. Tarro’s wrist and read the name bracelet.
“This vein?” said one surgeon behind his mask….
“I don’t want you to touch that vein,” Philip said. “I don’t know how she got down here….”
“This vein’s infected,…it needs to come out,” said the resident in an injured but emphatic voice….
The surgeons still stood, as if mesmerized, unrecognizable behind green masks. One took a step toward Philip, and Philip, surprising himself, raised his fist. The man stepped back again. “Take her out,” Philip said….
The anesthesiologist had already begun folding his tubing. “I’ll bill this as a completed procedure,” he said, “okay?”
In Johnson’s best scenes, she takes daring risks with humor, making observant fun of the mixture of compassion and disgust, cravenness and bravery, that sickness inspires, making comedy out of futility. It is a bold move to set a comedy in a hospital, something like setting a comedy in eternity; the wit comes into play through the confrontation between the mysterious and the mundane, the heroic and the trivial, the clash between the human impulses to be both. Here, Philip Watts attends a native American healing ceremony performed at Alta Buena on a patient named Perfecto Rainwater, who is comatose after a cocaine seizure:
Lame Thunder had…girded his loins with the skin of a little pig, so that its head and furious eyes stared out from his groin…. With the extreme solemnity, even anger of his expression, and the fantastic beauty of his headdress, he was an impressive sight. All these artifacts of sacrifice from the animal world lent to his endeavor an impression of a cooperative universe…. Philip became aware of Tabor, the hospital administrator, and a newspaper photographer, jostling for better places. Tabor gave Philip a grin and a thumbs-up gesture. “Great publicity,” he whispered, “showing hospital cooperation with persons of all religions and races….”
Johnson describes the nuances of public occasions with quicksilver facility; it is her treatment of private life in the novel that is less successful, since the main characters tend to seem more human pretexts for events than characters. They seem to have almost no personal or social histories.
Philip Watts, the hero, a perfectionist, who can even find perfection in his own fall from grace, thinks in the style of a medical school brochure: “This interdisciplinary study had been stimulating, and he hoped to broaden interdisciplinary approaches to clinical research when he took over at the new place.” Watts is a nagging problem in the book; while Johnson clearly intends us to see him as rigid and self-righteous, these very qualities make him read like a summary of thoughts and feelings, an outline. The writer’s mockery of him overshadows the character.
Although we are told how drawn he is to Ivy, he seems to wonder about her only when prodded by the author. On page 136, we find him speculating at last about the father of Ivy’s child, “For all he knew, Ivy’s husband was a well-known black professor or musician, unfortunately away during this illness,” but earlier, on page 116, at the hospital’s weekly “Morbidity and Mortality” conference, which Watts chairs, Ivy’s own doctor describes her case, “Here is a single, working mother with a young baby at home—those are the things we physicians out here in the trenches have to think about, you know.” And it seems just the sort of detail a man, any man, in love with a woman would be avid to hear.
Ivy is also less than fully imagined. She is a somewhat unconvincing half of that hot couple of the Nineties, mother and child. She is unchangeably breezy about single motherhood, even after she has undergone a nearly fatal stroke and faces a $48,000 medical bill: “I’m the proverbial single mother. I just wanted a baby. I mean, when I found out I was pregnant, I thought, Well, why not?” Though she feels nothing but contempt for the father of her child, this somehow doesn’t enter into her relationship with it, nor do any considerations for its future. She is the beautiful, romantic mother of a trouble-free, and apparently permanent infant, and she is little more than a pretty face in the novel.
The other couple, too, seem parted and reunited only by authorial fiat. They break up after making love once, when Mimi misunderstands Evans’s scrupulous return to work afterward as a lack of enthusiasm. Although he asks her out several times again, and is awkward with her, it never occurs to Mimi that his clumsiness might signal strong feeling for her. It seems unlikely that this thought would never strike the intelligent, attractive, stable woman Mimi is presented to be. She seems to think about Evans only on cue. And Evans, unfortunately, is just some words wearing a tie. What is missing is any reason for these couples to be together.
There is an enchanting moment in Austen’s Mansfield Park that suddenly makes sense of the possibility that its hero and heroine might turn out to be a couple: Fanny Price remembers how Edmund taught her the constellations and he replies, “I had a very apt scholar. There’s Arcturus looking very bright.”
“Yes, and the bear. I wish I could see Cassiopeia…. It is a great while since we have had any star-gazing.
“Yes, I do not know how it has happened.”
Here the distinct possibility, if not certainty, of love, moves delicately into place. Austen’s Fanny and Edmund are themselves a pair of goody-goodies, but Austen treats their primness with a humility of her own, showing how a pair of prigs can also be the hero and heroine of their own grave and tender love affair. She forces us to tolerate what is boring and irritating in them by following them through relationships in which everything life can mean for them is at stake. This starchy, humorless couple is shown to be capable of real anguish and real ardor. Johnson’s couples have nothing to do with each other outside of lovemaking; her quartet seems exempt from experience and change, while the narrator’s own point of view and voice are intriguingly subtle and complex.
When Ivy awakens from her stroke, she thinks “she was half made of lead, or half metamorphosed by some pursuing god, like those statues of the nymph Daphne, with trees sprouting from their fingertips, an image she had once thought so harmlessly pastoral, now it revealed its horror—the allegiance of the body to the vegetable world, the dominion of the mind only provisional and temporary. She was half vegetable.” It rings false that a character capable of imagery like this would perceive having a child and an adulterous affair with her doctor as nothing more complicated than a daydream.
In Health and Happiness, Johnson’s writing is at its most vital in describing the body and its experience of physical illness. Dr. Watts, trying to save a patient who has suffered a pulmonary embolism, imagines “the emboli like viscous bubbles, like corks in narrow necks of bottles, like miners stuck in tunnels….”
The best work in Health and Happiness has just this sense of discovery, in passages finding a way to describe the dramas inside the body that change everything that can happen outside it. Sexual and marital betrayal have been the stuff of comedy since Aristophanes. In Health and Happiness, Johnson gives us a comic glimpse of the ultimate betrayal, committed by our own bodies, which, as Proust wrote, after having given us so much pleasure turn on us and rend us more savagely than any wild animal.
January 31, 1991