Book Two of the Phineas Mann Series by Mark Anthony Powers
There are stories and Stories. Breath and Mercy is part of the second category.
The book begins with Phineas, the main character, starting his day at the hospital. He is still a student, but he’s already reached that brilliant, hellish stage of his career where doctors study and work at the same time and sleep becomes a commodity they are too poor to buy.
He is a kind, caring, goofy and sensible young man, who does everything by the book and loves his job: helping people makes the many hours he spent on books memorising as many names and diagnosis his brain could store worth it. He is enjoying his internship in the cardio-pulmonary unit as well as his flatmate’s company, and life is plain sailing towards a brilliant future. Life is looking good for Phineas. He meets a girl, Iris, who almost immediately tells him that she loves what he does and she would like to be of some help too, but she is too terrified by blood – risking to pass out at the mere idea. This doesn’t discourage them from getting together and, eventually, get married.
For a number of reasons, they move from Boston to New Orleans, at the end of the 70s. They find a decent apartment with a nice landlord that helps them with a few repairs and they also get a dog, as Iris is not very happy to spend her nights alone in their new house on the outskirts of the city. Life goes on, Iris gets a new job, her father dies, her mother falls into a deep depression and Iris leaves everything behind to temporarily look after her. In the meantime, Phineas is about to face a terrible outbreak of pneumonia at the hospital, which is also accompanied by a mysterious bruising on the skin. All the patients die within a very short period of time and no one can explain why, until months after, when the word AIDS enters the world, with all its scary connotations. It’s terrifying, they are all worried – to catch the disease, to not being able to find a treatment, scared of the paralysing uncertainty of the unknown – but eventually things begin to ease. They don’t find a cure, but at least they find some form of treatment that gives a little hope to the sick.
When things seem to finally turn for the best again, a hurricane hits New Orleans. Its name is Jezebel, and just like the biblical princess, it brings destruction on a vast scale. Phineas shockingly finds out that the electrical system of his hospital is located in the basement which will probably be flooded, meaning the only power supply available to the hospital is external power units. Nedless to say that they won’t last forever. Phineas is simply brilliant at organising all he can think of, moving patients and giving directions to his staff, but despite all their efforts and the relatively quick passage of Jezebel, a hard time is ahead of them, made of difficult choices, unbearable heat, no water, no sleep, barely any food. Help will arrive but it will only bring Phineas to a court of justice, his reputation smeared with the accusation of euthanising some of his patients.
Breath and Mercy is a brilliant book, full of plot twists and unexpected events. The way some events are shaped and presented is so relatable. HIV, for example, still scares older generations – both the ones who saw it happen in real time and the ones right after, who grew up in the fear of the disease. It also resonates with a younger public; think about Covid: no one knew what it was, what to do and we could only powerlessly look at people dying. On the other hand, there is the humanity of doctors: we almost look up to them as if they were gods and had all the answers and could fix anything, not realising that they are people, they see terrible things and take incredible decisions and are required to do it everyday and move on to the next patient. I think that telling a doctor’s story from the voice of someone who has been there is simply brilliant (Mark himself was an Associate Professor Emeritus of Medicine at Duke University).
However, there are times when the drama of it all doesn’t come across in all its brutality. I would have loved a touch more pathos, perhaps digging deeper in the testing, desperate and hopeful moments that are typical of any hospital, along with the smell of disinfectant and the cheap linoleum flooring. As much as we don’t want to scare our readers off, some stories deserve to be told in all their ugly details.
Other than that, it’s a brilliant book that I loved reading. It’s a dramatic story told with a very light touch and an incredible ear for words and constructions, making the hand of the writer disappear completely behind a curtain, letting the reader enjoy the ups and downs of human lives with a pinch of irony and a bittersweet insight on the medical profession and all the challenges medical staff have to face.
Breath and Mercy is available for purchase at: https://www.amazon.com/Breath-Mercy-Novel-Phineas-Mann/dp/1737032929
About Mark Anthony Powers
Mark Anthony Powers grew up in the small town of West Lebanon, NH. At Cornell University, he strayed into Russian and Creative Writing while majoring in engineering. After receiving his MD from Dartmouth, he went south to the University of North Carolina for an internship and residency in Internal Medicine, followed by a fellowship in Pulmonary Diseases and Critical Care Medicine.
After almost forty years in clinical practice and teaching, he retired from Duke University as an Associate Professor Emeritus of Medicine and began his exploration of other parts of his brain. Writing, gardening, IT, and magic courses were just some of the enjoyment that followed. A deep dive into beekeeping led to his presidency of the county beekeeping association and certification as a Master Beekeeper. Two cups of coffee and two hours of writing most mornings produced A Swarm in May and other works. To learn more or connect with Mark, please visit http://www.markanthonypowers.com. (Source: amazon.com)