Healing, both physical and emotional, is the dominant theme of the novel, as characters confront their own mortality, both in body and in spirit. The tumor in Molly's brain has a parallel in the emotional wound created by the death of her husband, Paul, a death made doubly hurtful by the fact that the two had decided to separate only shortly before. Cancer becomes a metaphor for a kind of unfocused doom which has become endemic to the modern landscape, ultimately affecting not only Molly, but the great Sandy Sanderson himself, whose prostate cancer also brings him to a new awareness of mortality, subverting the "mad male pride" which keep doctors above the realm of disease and fear they try to govern. As Susan Sontag points out in her ground-breaking essay "Illness as Metaphor," cancer has become a signifier for many kinds of social and psychological diseases, as was tuberculosis in the nineteenth century. There is even a dominant cultural myth suggesting that certain kinds of people—anxious, repressed worriers—are more vulnerable to cancer, and that cancer itself is to some degree a psychological affliction.

The other modern disease in Medicine Men is alcoholism. Drinking is a prevalent pastime and topic of conversation, and most of the characters are or have been heavy drinkers. Most families have a history of alcoholism—both Molly's parents and Henry Starck's are alcoholics—and the alcoholic marriage is a common motif. Alcoholic wives are particularly common, and both Sandy's wife Connie and Dr. Mark Stinger's wife, Jane, are AA members in recovery. The alcoholism motif mirrors the total loss of personal agency and sense of self experienced in cancer, while healing for both is present in recovery. Addiction itself is a metaphor, since even those seemingly above common dependency, the doctors, are addicted to...

(The entire section is 752 words.)