Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, March 9, 2012


What is the Great American Novel about a dentist?  Could it be Frank Norris' McTeague (1899)  with its great opening paragraphs?

It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductors' coffee-joint on Polk Street. He had a thick gray soup; heavy, underdone meat, very hot, on a cold plate; two kinds of vegetables; and a sort of suet pudding, full of strong butter and sugar. On his way back to his office, one block above, he stopped at Joe Frenna's saloon and bought a pitcher of steam beer. It was his habit to leave the pitcher there on his way to dinner.

Once in his office, or, as he called it on his signboard, "Dental Parlors," he took off his coat and shoes, unbuttoned his vest, and, having crammed his little stove full of coke, lay back in his operating chair at the bay window, reading the paper, drinking his beer, and smoking his huge porcelain pipe while his food digested; crop-full, stupid, and warm. By and by, gorged with steam beer, and overcome by the heat of the room, the cheap tobacco, and the effects of his heavy meal, he dropped off to sleep. Late in the afternoon his canary bird, in its gilt cage just over his head, began to sing. He woke slowly, finished the rest of his beer—very flat and stale by this time—and taking down his concertina from the bookcase, where in week days it kept the company of seven volumes of "Allen's Practical Dentist," played upon it some half-dozen very mournful airs.

McTeague looked forward to these Sunday afternoons as a period of relaxation and enjoyment. He invariably spent them in the same fashion. These were his only pleasures—to eat, to smoke, to sleep, and to play upon his concertina.

You can now get the entire novel online: McTeague (complete text).

McTeague is fun to read, that's for sure (you'll never feel the same about teeth--or finger-biting or canaries--after you read it), but it doesn't appear on anyone's Best American Novel list, I don't think.  Still, you gotta read it ...

And then there's that famous scene from the 1976 film Marathon Man, based on William Goldman's novel, the scene when Sir Laurence Olivier, of all people, drills the live tooth of Dustin Hoffman, of all people, and asks the enigmatic question, Is it safe?  Dental torture took off after that film; you can see it now in just about any grim scene in a thriller.

So ... what does any of this have to do with anything?  Just take a look at the picture above.  I've made it big so that you can't possibly miss it.

Yes, that is an x-ray.  Yes, that is my mouth.  Yes, it is recent.  Yes, that is a screw in my jaw.  Yes, it hurt.  No, McTeague was not my dentist.  (Nor was the late Sir Laurence.)

This has been the latest thrill of getting older.  ("Things fall apart, the center cannot hold"--not exactly what Yeats had in mind, but it fits.)  So, first came the extraction of the offending molar (which wore a crown of some significance and expense), then the stitches, then the going home and eating mush for a few days, then the healing, then the return and the "installation" of the device you see pictured (a receptacle for the faux tooth that's on the way), then some more mush, some more waiting.  Soon I will go back to receive my "tooth."  And then I will get the final bill, a bill so substantial that it makes me think about Frank Norris and McTeague.  In that novel, the dentist was brought down by gold (among other things.)  If he'd just come along later--in the era of orthodontics and periodontal surgery and crowns and implants and the like--he would have had no need for greed (which, by the way, was the title of the 1924 silent film based on McTeague--and look! the poster calls it "the Great American Novel"!).

So I wait for the bill, wait to open it, wait to read it.  OUCH!

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