Richard Kraft, in his early thirties, son of a peripatetic father whose family accompanied him to various foreign outposts during Richard’s childhood, entered college late, using the span between eighteen and twenty to attend a conservatory of music in Boston, where he hoped to perfect his skill on the French horn. On a winter day when his water pipes froze and an old man was beaten with a baseball bat by thugs in Roxbury, not far from where he lived, he resolved to leave Boston. At semester’s end, he retreated to North Dakota, where his father now lived. He slept for the better part of six months, after which he went first to college, then to medical school.
Now Kraft, modeled on author Richard Powers’ brother- Kraft in German means “power”-is in his fifth year as a surgical resident doing a six-month rotation in pediatric surgery at Carver, a large southern California hospital (possibly Harbor Hospital in Torrance). He is in the third week of his rotation. The reader is first introduced to him on the highway as he worms his agonizing way through rush-hour traffic to Carver.
The freeway and its traffic snarls set the tone for the metaphor Powers is building. Complicated, congested, irrational, impersonal, and eminently dangerous, the freeway is not unlike contemporary life itself, particularly on the sprawling urban field where Operation Wandering Soul, one of five finalists for the 1993 National Book Award for fiction, is played out.
Most of the societal problems anyone can envision flourish in the microcosm Powers has chosen; Kraft has to deal with overwhelming numbers of these problems on a daily basis, often as emergencies. The difference between the freeway and the hospital is that on the freeway Kraft is less personally involved with those around him.
The instant he sets foot in the hospital, Kraft is pulled in conflicting directions by the pressing needs of massed humanity, often self-destructive, who have overdosed, had knife fights, or engaged in gunplay. They are poor. They are in dire and immediate need. Many of them are not fluent in English.
One boy, whose parents speak only Turkish, is brought in with his hand a rotting, foul-smelling mess, because his parents did not understand that they were to change the dressings regularly. The son’s wound, quite unnecessarily, has festered for a fortnight. Kraft, beneath his mask a sensitive person, has struggled consciously to develop the self-protective carapace that will keep him from dying a little every time one of his patients dies, from himself feeling the pain each time he probes an open wound of a suffering child.
Kraft’s hours, like those of most medical residents, are so long and taxing that, within the hospital’s windowless surgical theaters he loses track of whether it is day or night. He sometimes hallucinates. He has mastered the art of snatching quarter-hours of sleep—just enough to rehabilitate momentarily his sleep-deprived body and a mind sodden by the physical and emotional overreaching that his residency demands.
The pediatric surgical ward Kraft serves offers all manner of bizarre etiologies. Not yet an adolescent, Chuck, born without a face, has endured reconstructive surgery for most of his life. He can now manage a near-smile on the hole in his face that may one day-after several more operations-resemble a conventional mouth. Ben, a double amputee gets around with considerable difficulty. Nicolino, precocious in every way (including sexually), suffers from progeria, that mystifying progressive disease that catapults children into old age with alarming swiftness. His body is already well advanced in that strange aging process.
The most beguiling of the children, twelve-year-old Joy Stepaneevong, is a South-east Asian boat person who endures unimaginable privation and insecurity with amiability. Joy excels in her studies, never complains, is grateful merely to be alive. Her devoted father, whose status as an illegal immigrant prohibits him from visiting her openly during her illness, slinks in under cover of night for surreptitious visits, hovering apprehensively about her bed. The growth Joy has above her right...
(The entire section is 1719 words.)