Book Review : One Man’s Study of Impending Death


The Quarterback Speaks to His God by Herbert Wilner (Cayuse Press, P.O. Box 9086, Berkeley, Calif. 94709: $17.95; 239 pages)

“Herbert Wilner died in 1977 at age 51, believing the manuscript of ‘The Quarterback Speaks to His God’ to be still unfinished. . . . He died after open-heart surgery without completing that design. . . . In 1965 he had a growth removed from his chest and underwent intense radiation therapy that eventually damaged his heart and lungs. He continued to teach and write despite long periods in the hospital. The last decade of his life became an increasingly debilitating struggle for breath. . . . His disability became his subject.”

These snippets from Leo Litwak’s introduction to this collection of short pieces by a friend dead 10 years tell us part of Herbert Wilner’s personal history, and there are other hints as well. Evidently, Wilner wanted to play the writing game, and didn’t want to: He was a “family man,” we are told, and not into self-promotion. He lived on the wrong (West) coast. He taught, and “largely shaped” the writing program at San Francisco State University, yet was capable of writing somewhat huffily, “Others considered me a professor who wrote; I thought of myself as a writer who taught. I lived an academic man’s life, loved teaching. . . . But reserved for myself, out of boyhood memories, a disdain for academic nonsense.”


You begin to see--or hypothesize--a writer working under the aegis of a large, sad angel carrying a banner inscribed with the celestial question: Can You Have It Both Ways? Be a writer who teaches, a teacher who writes, a writer who disdains publicity, a professor who disdains “academic nonsense,” and, mostly, an athlete who values his physical life greatly, but who is plagued by dreadful health problems for one-fifth of his life, and then dies at the halfway point of life--just a little over 50?

His Last Work

Here is the last work of a man who struggled for balance in all that. Beyond the subject matter here (death, sickness, hospitals, doctors, patients, despair), or the style (exceedingly formal and controlled), the dynamic that holds these stories together, like a rod of reinforcing steel, is ambivalence, balance; the strain and the strength of seeing something both ways.

If you’re feeling sick, or have a tropism toward sickness or hypochondria, you might want to stay away from this book. On the other hand, you might want to pick it up, immerse yourself in your worst fears, experience cancer, infections, amputations, suicide, murder, deafness, stroke, depression and fatal open-heart surgery. You may want to totally take advantage of these pieces as art, using them to purge yourself of these fears and then get on with your life. “The Quarterback Speaks to His God” really is like a long stay in the hospital: These stories create their own world so convincingly that it’s hard to remember what it’s like outside.

In “My Roommate’s Room” a man with a gruesome symptom (a knotted intestine) waits around with a tube in his stomach to see whether or not he’ll have to undergo surgery. His first roommate, hideously infected, is in blinding pain, screams all night, and is soon moved away. His second roommate is fussy, talkative, a perfectionist, a style-maven. When he moves in, he brings all his zillion greeting cards, his potted plants, his flock of devoted friends. He says he has a fatal disease.

The man with the knotted intestine is released, intact, burdened with the unspoken injunction to enjoy himself. But how do you enjoy life, once you get a good look at what’s waiting for you at the end of the journey? What’s the most intelligent strategy--joy, style or depression and emptiness?

The two most haunting stories here, it seems to me, are “Consultations” and “Facial Nerve.” Both involve our worst fears, our worst disease (at least in the old days before AIDS), cancer. In “Consultations,” a young man who works for the DMV comes home from a vacation with an anxiety attack. He makes the mistake of going to a hospital emergency room, where he immediately falls into a Kafkaesque nightmare. A tumor is found in his chest, excised and labeled a seminoma. Radiation is prescribed as a follow-up. Then the real nightmare begins: What is a seminoma? It depends on how you look at it, and which doctor you believe. One doctor says he doesn’t even count a seminoma as cancer.

But the cruel radiation treatments go on. Another doctor advises the patient kindly, “Have some balance in this. Otherwise you’ll have an ordeal.” But the ordeal, of course, is already in full swing. One of these doctors is a death expert, a black belt of suffering-infliction. He chain smokes and specializes in the remark that reminds you your number is up. By the end of “Consultations” the patient feels the hand of death firmly upon him. The fact, the beginning of his slide toward oblivion, is shrouded in ignorance, misrepresentation and lies. There’s no way he will ever know.

A Cure That’s Worse

The same theme is followed through in “Facial Nerve,” in which a ‘60s hippie shaves his beard and is hailed as beautiful by his adoring girlfriend. Except--he has a nodule under his ear. Down at the Free Clinic, the hippie runs into another of those death doctors who lectures him on the complexity of nodule removal, the worry of perhaps paralyzing one-half of his face. The doctor removes the nodule, saves the facial nerve, but leaves a big hole in the hippie’s face. He becomes one of those unfortunates that people turn from in public places. In despair the hippie confronts the doctor, who rails at him. The guy was lucky things turned out so well!

Each of these stories is poised on the fulcrum of life and death. The last--the thoughts and life of a patient just up to the moment of his open-heart surgery--is almost too painful to read, both powerful and heartbreaking in its intense desire to see, to understand, and to record, literally before it’s too late.