Down from Troy

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his memoir Down from Troy, surgeon-writer Richard Selzer revisits his childhood home of Troy, New York, where he grew up during the Depression years. Selzer describes his transformation from a frail, bookish child to an eager assistant to his father’s general medical practice among the working-class Irish families of Troy. His parents were temperamentally very different—his father a tolerant, humane, skeptical physician and his mother a volatile, emotional cabaret singer and soubrette. His parents, of Russian Jewish background, had moved south from Montreal and settled where his father could open a general practice. Richard, his parents, and his older brother Billy lived above his father’s office, in a three-story red-brick building with a high stoop and curved wrought iron railings. The building burned when Richard was seven years old.

Selzer’s memoir is very personal, even painful at times, as he recalls the emotional tensions in his highly charged family. His parents did not get along and often quarreled about his future. His mother wanted him to be a writer and his father preferred that he become a surgeon. Richard became the prize in their struggle, their family’s version of the Trojan War. His father was rational and skeptical, his mother emotional and impulsive; each saw the world very differently. His father was content with his work and location, his mother restless and discontented in upstate Troy. His mother would fill the house with her silvery soprano voice, singing opera arias, while his father would quietly come up to dinner after his six-to-eight o’clock evening office hours were over.

As a child, Selzer loved the shabby children’s room of the Troy Public Library. His mother encouraged him to read, despite his father’s objections. Selzer was a voracious reader of fairy tales, myths and legends, fantasies, and epic adventures, especially Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Selzer plays the mythic, heroic Greek allusions of the city’s namesake against the harshness, disorder, and violence of his childhood world. He mythologizes the commonplace landscapes of his native town by associating them with the Trojan War, even personifying the Hudson River as a river god that demanded its share of sacrifices each year through accidents and drownings.

In his memoir, Selzer pays tribute to the enormous formative influence of his father, an old-fashioned small-town physician who healed through touch, by his careful and compassionate examinations—sometimes all he could do for his patients. “His idea of doctoring,” Selzer recalls, “was to treat the symptoms and trust the sickness to be- come discouraged and go away.” His father believed in courtesy, even to his poorest and most destitute patients. He would make the rounds in the county jail, encouraging the poor, alcoholic, tubercular inmates with his cheerful greetings. He would never give up on his patients, treating them as tenderly as he did the spindly cyclamen plant that he kept alive for fifteen years. During World War II, when there was a shortage of practice, Selzer’s father took on a second, country practice outside of Troy and kept such long hours that he collapsed and died from overwork when Selzer was twelve years old. His father’s final influence came through his death, which motivated Selzer to emulate him through the career he chose.

There is much that is gothic, even morbid, in Selzer’s reminiscences, which are always suffused with an aura of death. He seems torn between his desire, as a physician, to heal the wounded and battered humanity that he encounters, and his fascination, as an artist, with the mechanics of sickness, disease, and death as entities unto themselves. Surgery and writing have much in common, Selzer claims, since they involve either healing or creating. One spills blood or ink, sutures flesh or words, and predicts or imagines various outcomes. From early childhood, he was torn between his fascinations with doctoring and storytelling. Although he chose surgery as a profession, his creative urge remained unsatisfied until, at the age of forty, he began to write gothic short stories based upon his experiences as a surgeon. His mentor as a storyteller was the garrulous Duffy, a wounded World War I veteran and regular patron at Troy’s Central Tavern who regaled patrons with his extravagant stories. One of Duffy’s favorite tales was of the Mohawk Indian who fell from a girder during construction of the Watervliet bridge and was entombed in the freshly poured concrete of a bridge pillar. When the young Selzer challenged his veracity, the indignant Duffy replied, “We are not a liar. We are a storyteller.”

Selzer’s memoir makes use of an interrupted chronology to move back and forth between anecdotes and memories as child, medical student, surgeon, and writer. His prose evokes the dirty, sooty, grimy ethos of Depression-era Troy, with its winter coal smoke, dirty snow, and frozen Hudson River. He offers lush...

(The entire section is 2049 words.)