Monday 20 May 2024

Dr. A.H. Moynihan by Lucia Berlin

Mirror! Mirror! much blood. The grotesque and absurd collide in this darkly humorous coming-of-age tale where the vivid descriptions of tooth extractions are so exaggerated that they verge on camp. In "Dr. A.H. Moynihan", the narrator reflects on their youth when she was expelled from Catholic school and went to work at her grandfather's dental office during the summer (she is possibly the same narrator from "Stars and Saints"). Lucia Berlin's witty and economic prose is always reliable to keep the narrative flowing at a quick pace.  

The grandfather figure is an alcoholic and a curmudgeon who is estranged from his own daughter. It is implied that he might be have been abusive to her growing up. He is also a racist: "On all the windows, facing the main street of El Paso, were large gold letters that read, "Dr. H.A. Moynihan. I Don't Work for Negroes." The story's casual racism towards black people is disconcerting and difficult to overlook.  

The main comedic set piece involves the unqualified narrator performing oral surgery on the grandfather to remove his remaining teeth and install dentures. It is very chaotic and unfolds like a slapstick comedy with the narrator frantically trying not to kill the grandfather in the process, while blood is spraying everywhere. The entire scene is quite graphic and utterly absurd but the humor somehow manages to humanize the flawed characters, especially the grandfather. This is certainly one of my least favorite Lucia Berlin stories but she always impresses me with the her skillful use of humor that contributes to the sense of verisimilitude. Life is rarely devoid of humor, even in its most intense and absurd circumstances. 

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