I was taught to distrust memoirs, to think of autobiography as a lesser art than fiction. I don’t remember a moment when I was taught this lesson explicitly; it is just an impression that I picked up along the way via osmosis. The best way to compliment a memoir, then, is to say that it ought to be a novel.
Abraham Verghese’s The Tennis Partner ought to be a novel. Its first-person narration is wise, self-reflective, and often (not always) aware of its limitations. Its El Paso, TX setting is fantastic, and Verghese uses this setting beautifully by placing El Paso side by side with Juarez, always subtly reminding the reader that these two mirrored cities – one American and safe, one Mexican and steeped in violence – are identical in their geography and natural resources. Don’t get me wrong: I liked this book quite a lot as a memoir, but when I was reading it, my long-established prejudice against memoirs nudged me to condemn it just a little. I’ll try to keep that voice out of the rest of this review, since Verghese really deserves nothing but praise.
This memoir is set in the early 1990’s, when Abraham Verghese and his wife and two sons arrived in El Paso so Verghese could assume a new job at the teaching hospital there. Verghese’s entire life had been transient in nature: he had been born in India and raised in Ethiopia, with sojourns in several U.S. cities as he moved from one phase to the next of his medical education and career. The most important constant during all these moves was tennis. Verghese describes himself as not at all accomplished as a tennis player (though he sure fooled me; I’m intimidated by athletic lingo most of the time) but as a dedicated, hard-working player. He rigorously keeps a tennis journal in which he documents every practice session, match, and piece of advice he is given. Shortly after he moves to El Paso, he seeks out a tennis club and becomes a member.
At the same time, Verghese’s marriage is falling apart. He and his wife Rajani delay the inevitable for a while, feigning normalcy while they move their young sons into their El Paso home, but soon Verghese is in the market for an apartment. When he finds one, he refuses to furnish it, still in denial about the divorce. His sons love “camping out” on the floor of their father’s condo and eating pizza straight from the box, but Verghese is miserable – and at the same time, he is unwilling to admit to himself that he is miserable.
Soon Verghese meets David Smith, a fourth-year medical student and former professional tennis player who is assigned to Verghese’s team in the hospital. Verghese approaches David and suggests that they play tennis, and soon a dynamic of mutual instruction and mentoring begins. On the tennis court, David coaches Verghese, who dutifully goes home and writes down everything David taught him in his journal. At the hospital, Verghese is the instructor and mentor, and David is one of many students. Verghese admires David as a medical student, finding him diligent, compassionate, and highly intelligent.
David is all of these things – but he is also a drug addict with a long history of injecting himself with heroin and cocaine. Before Verghese arrived in El Paso, David had been removed from his medical school class and sent to rehab. When Verghese meets David, he has been given a chance to finish his degree a year behind schedule, but he is drug tested regularly and attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings on a schedule mandated by the hospital. David confides these details to Verghese over coffee after their tennis matches, and once he is aware of David’s history, Verghese becomes aware that there is a contingent of medical students and hospital staff who deeply distrust David, who know about his previous lapses and seem to be waiting for him to use drugs again. Verghese becomes determined to counter these forces by helping David in any way he can.
Verghese and David are like El Paso and Juarez, two remarkably similar men who have followed different paths for reasons that are largely coincidental. Verghese relates a miserable, lonely childhood and a constant sense of feeling like an outsider; David grew up in a prosperous family in Australia but hates his parents for reasons that Verghese never understands. While he keeps the details of his failing marriage a secret from everyone at work – including, for a while, from David – Verghese feels like a terrible failure. He pines for his children and bemoans his bare apartment, finding respite only at the hospital – where he loves his work and seems like a wonderful doctor – and in his tennis matches with David. David also has a bifurcated personality – he is handsome and energetic, a former professional tennis player and generally a respected medical student with a solid future – but underneath this exterior he is a deeply insecure person whose entire being is dominated by two things: the escape provided by drugs and the feeling of acceptance and belonging that he associates with sex. During his time as Verghese’s tennis partner, David falls in love with and then alienates two women as he struggles to control not only his drug addiction but his sex addiction as well.
By the time David is once again using drugs, Verghese is deeply committed to David’s well-being, describing their relationship like this: “My friendship with David, during its inception, and during the heady period when our lives revolved so much around each other, had held out the promise of leading somewhere, to something extraordinary, some vital epiphany – what, precisely, I couldn’t be sure of. Still, that was how it felt – magical, special” (279). While there were times when I was tempted to yell at the book, “Get a room, you two!” in general this closeness makes perfect sense. Everything Verghese learns about David contributes to his understanding of himself. As a doctor and medical school professor, there is absolutely no room in his public persona for the feelings of failure and loneliness that his divorce has forced upon him. Every time Verghese learns something new about David’s addictions, he on some level learns something about himself too.
This book is about the shame of living a life in which some part of the self must be kept hidden away. I’ve had similar feelings as a teacher – another career in which personal stress and pain must be pushed aside in favor of professionalism and disinterest. When Verghese begins to realize that David has lied even to him, he seeks out a patient who is familiar with the underground world of IV drug users in El Paso and arranges for a tour of the areas most associated with buying and using heroin and cocaine. As he follows his patient on this tour, the role reversal is complete: the patient is the one pointing out individuals, drawing attention to symptoms and details that can be used to draw conclusions about the drug habits of the individuals, and Verghese is the student, following along and taking notes.
There’s a lot more I could go into here, especially in terms of the medical details. Verghese seems like an absolutely incredible doctor, and as someone who often curses the entire medical profession, that is no small praise. At times these details are not for the faint of heart, but they’re always rendered with a strange but appropriate mix of sympathy and clinical objectivity. One of this memoir’s many themes is the need to study small details in order to understand the coherent whole of something – a process at which Verghese generally succeeds. David doesn’t, though – by the end of the memoir, he is dead, on an autopsy table, and Verghese, his teacher and friend, is the one called to identify the body.
I’m not going to harass Verghese too much for writing a memoir instead of a novel. This book is good – regardless of how one categorizes it – and I recommend it highly.