I first encountered Dr. Verghese in his acclaimed My Own Country. There he recorded his heartbreaking experiences with the country's first cases of AIDS as they returned from the cities of each coast to come home to East Tennessee, not knowing what disease they had or what to expect. We followed the lives of each new patient, went into their homes, met their friends, lovers, and sometimes wives. We witnessed the community and his profession reject Verghese as he tried to understand and treat the people with the strange unfolding disease of AIDS.
It was my good fortune to spend an afternoon with Abe Verghese at the Southern Festival of Books, where we shared a panel discussion and several hours of talk. Later, I saw one of the patients he wrote about in My Own Country. The woman, still in the early stages of AIDS, told me her story in some detail and then said, but read Abe's book . . . he put it down just the way it is. She reaffirmed my own observations that Dr. Verghese is an extraordinarily compassionate man who also happens to be a physician. She also convinced me that he is a very accurate recorder.
In The Tennis Partner, Verghese continues to show his uncanny ability to be a participant-observer. He writes objectively but at the same time with intense emotion. Time after time we follow him, as if just a step behind, through the most painful circumstances, experiences, and relationships. Verghese relates the moving stories of a medical school professor, a failing marriage, cocaine addiction, love affairs with medicine and tennis, and a brief and tragic friendship with a medical student/ex-tennis pro. The parallels between obsessions with tennis, medicine, and cocaine are thought-provoking and powerful. Verghese carries us into the world of troubled and impaired medical students and doctors and leads us to a better understanding of the profession's proclivity for addictive behavior. For whatever reason, Verghese is drawn to the down-and-out, troubled, and tragic members of our world. He leaves us with some knowledge that, given a tiny twist of fate, they are not very different, if at all, from any of us.
Clifton Meador is a physician and author of several books.