In Breaking the Hippocratic Oath and Other Stories, local NC author Deborah Thompson crams five short stories between the covers and explores ideas ranging from crime and punishment to time alteration to alien life forms making contact with us.
Just how would one write the downward spiral of a respected and successful doctor in private practice as he succumbs to weakness and addiction? In “Breaking the Hippocratic Oath,” we follow Dr. Marcus Wagner’s downfall and start off with an edgy prologue—he’s peering through the shuttered blinds of his house at a mysterious black car driven by someone he’s convinced is stalking him. Who is it? Why is he or she following Wagner? Thompson catches the reader up fast on Wagner’s past—college, medical school, residency, love and marriage. Sixteen years, two children, and countless patients later Wagner has climbed to the top of the success ladder but the rungs underfoot are giving way.
There are clues in the narrative: Wagner’s staff start watching him closely, double checking his work; he starts losing time, those odd moments of sleeping awake, unaware of what he’s done; his wife thinks he’s having an affair; his friendship with a chance-met younger man takes on overriding significance he can’t explain. The tension mounts. His growing inability to focus on his patients leads to the accidental death of one of them, his wife leaves him and serves up papers for a divorce, and Wagner turns increasingly to his drug addiction to cope. Not good.
The end, when it comes, is quick, a double whammy that sends Wagner reeling. As a story, it’s an interesting if somewhat sordid one and it was over too fast.
Thompson follows this with “Backspace Key.” Time travel and memory erasure are staples in science fiction but this story gives both a new twist: jurisprudence. While she doesn’t fully explain how everyone comes to possess their innate backspace key, she does describe how a person can legally use it to evade punishment a past action. Society actually has an entire section of the legal code devoted to its use. The key is “pressed”, the slate wiped clean, removing the errors of the person’s past. Time is reset and the action never happens and the world goes on. Given the nature of the time alteration, it also can be used by proxy to save another person’s life. There is a catch to the key: it can only be used once. Having established that, Thompson goes on to show us one Martin Kinsey, a CEO and swindler of ENRON proportions using his backspace key to avoid prison for his financial crime. He goes back to his old bank in the much lower position of Customer Relations and carries on with his life.
However, the past as a way of tripping a person up and that happens when his former mistress from his swindler days meets him by chance on the street. In the way women have of scoping out the competition, Kinsey’s wife immediately twigs who she is even though it takes a moment for her husband to figure it out. What happens next is an interesting twist on revenge and the ending brings home the idea that perhaps consequences for one’s actions cannot be removed, only delayed.
“The Dater” is the next story in the line-up. Online dating, profiles, and the fact that on the internet nobody really knows who you are. It’s a combination ripe for abuse and Thompson spins us a scenario of how one lonely-heart woman takes advantage of it. It’s a short little story, coming quickly to the anticipated conclusion as the protagonist arranges to meet her internet friend … and then everything goes a little sideways. In an ending reminiscent of the film Single White Female the protagonist monkeywrenches the reader’s expectations and the ending comes rather quickly. Something like the headsman’s axe and I was left wondering just what the heck happened. How was that done? Thompson is frustratingly short on the details.
Jumping ahead in the line-up to the last story, “Terrarium World” is a short and sweet speculative piece about a five-year-old boy’s terrarium and the life forms in it. Leaving aside the circumstances that drive the story forward, “Terrarium World” offers a chance to wonder what alternative forms of life exist and how communication between them and us can occur. How can a different species communicate with Homo sapiens without having the benefit of mouths or airwaves to transmit sound? How can a different species be microscopic yet crystalline in structure and could a rock be considered alive as a result? Lots of questions spin off from the author’s alien creatures physical, mental, and emotional make-up and while the story does give us a happy ending, I was left feeling it could have been an even better story had Thompson given herself more pages to develop it.
With the exception of the middle story of the book, “The Adventures of the Brantley Brothers”, Thompson’s offerings suffer from the same flaw—great idea, not enough pages devoted to developing in full. I got the sense that I was merely reading a thumbnail sketch of a fuller treatment of the story. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps Thompson is right now polishing up full length manuscripts for all of them. I hope so. I’d really like to see what she could do with the ideas her four stories presented. I’d certainly buy the books as they came out and take them for a spin.
And speaking of taking something out for a spin, let me mention “The Adventures of the Brantley Boys” separate from the rest. It is here, finally, that I got the sense that Thompson’s quick and almost breezy narrative style got the chance to truly shine. The short anecdotal nature of the tales of the Brantley boys is perfect for the purpose. Just like sitting on the porch and spinning yarns at the annual family reunion, these stories are meant to be told as slice-of-life snapshots, with little connecting narrative from one to the other. Two redneck good ol’ boys from a fictitious North Carolina town, the Brantleys get into many a scrape and a scrap on both sides of the law. No apologies made, no apologies needed. They are who they are and we have a fun time seeing them as they are. The stories are humorous for the most part, going more for entertainment than erudition. They are nothing one can call deep. Yet by exaggerating the flaws of the Brantleys so vividly, we can laugh at them even as we acknowledge the flaws in ourselves and that is the true value in the tales. Who wouldn’t want to max out someone’s credit card on a wild three-week spree at a beach resort? Who wouldn’t want to break every speed law there is on the books on a mad dash to a destination? There is an undeniable quirky charm in learning a vintage car is all flash on nothing, missing entire floorboards to glimpse the asphalt speeding by underneath, and know that the owner believes it to be a solid gold beauty of a ride. Who hasn’t had similar feelings for their car and who in the audience can resist feeling a twinge of sadness when the Brantley car goes up in smoke in one of the tales, and in true seat-of-the-pants, Brantley Boys fashion?
Again, if I had to bring any complaint against this collection of short stories, it is that they are too short. All the stories offered glimpses of worlds that seem much bigger and invited exploration. Perhaps Deborah Thompson will revisit them and expand them to novel length. I can only think that they would shine even brighter if she did.