Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist by Michael Downs

This afternoon, a pleasant woman with a smoker’s cough is scheduled to pry open my mouth, reach into its moist depths with her gloved fingers, and yank on my teeth like they were gems cemented to a river bottom and she was the world’s most determined jeweler. There will be pain, there will be a clenching of torso muscles, there will be the airy, sloppy suction of spittle. But when all is said and yanked, I will emerge from the dentist a new man with a new tooth. The only lingering traces of the molar crown work will be the rubbery tingle of a numbed jaw and the monetary throb of the dentist’s bill.

This morning, however, from the dry, pain-free safety of my desk, I’m watching the hypnotic trailer for Michael Downs’ new novel, The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist. The video has the potential to be a Grand Guignol dental horror show—all those teeth! all those rusty metal tools!—but Downs provides a counterbalancing calmness as his NPR-smooth voice narrates a passage from the book. The words are soothing enough to make me unclench my grip and pull my fingernails from the armrest of the dental chair. This passage, for instance, marvelously describes the sensation of anesthesia rippling through the titular Horace:
His body became waves—waves instead of legs, waves instead of arms, waves instead of lungs, the weightless pleasure of waves. He experienced something like a laugh, but it was the laugh of soul rather than body.
Those sentences are so beautiful they bring pleasure even to someone who has a mouth riddled with pain. The novel concerns itself with Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist practicing in the early 1800s who learned that nitrous oxide (i.e. laughing gas) could also help relieve pain. His discovery would change the world, reshaping medicine and humanity’s relationship with pain. Regular readers of the blog already know I am a big fan of Downs’ previous book, The Greatest Show, and I expect Horace Wells will keep me entertained no matter where I find myself today: in a reading nook or a dentist’s chair.

Trailer Park Tuesday is a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

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