Rick Dooling is yet another immensely talented Nebraska author, one who left here but came back and continues to reside here. His work exhibits great range, but at its core is a sharp wit and a facility for making complex subjects compelling and relatable. His books include White Man’s Grave, which was nominated for the National Book Award, Critical Care, Brain Storm, and his latest, Rapture for the Geeks. He’s also a great guy. This is the first of a few stories I’ve written about him, and it is by the far the most in-depth. It orignally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). Look for more of my Dooling stories to be added to the site. I strongly recommend anything by Rick, who also writes essays on societal-cultural matters for the New York Times and other leading publications.
One of Rick’s books, Critical Care, was made into a feature film by the same title directed by Sidney Lumet. Rick was working with filmmaker Alan Pakula on another big screen adaptation when Pakula was killed in a freak highway accident. Since this article appeared, Rick has collaborated with Stephen King on the television series Kingdom Hospital and adapted King’s short story Dolan’s Cadillac for a feature film by the same name. He’s currently producing-writing a TV pilot.
Slaying Dragons, Author Richard Dooling’s Sharp Satire Cuts Deep and Quick
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since 1992 Omaha native Richard Dooling has gone from being just another frustrated writer to a literary star, creating a body of work distinguished for its dizzying array of ideas, sharp satirical assault on cherished dogma and sheer mastery of language. In three acclaimed novels — Critical Care, White Man’s Grave, Brain Storm — this writer-provocateur skewers American mores, trends, fads and sacred cows, reserving his most cutting remarks for two fields he once worked in, the law and health care. Easy targets, yes, but Dooling doesn’t settle for tired old broadsides or cloying jokes worn thin. Instead, he uses the hubris and cynicism endemic in the law and medicine as a prism for critically examining issues and raising questions that vex us all.
Dooling, who would make a great teacher, doesn’t presume to provide answers so much as prod us to think about how once basic human yearnings and immutable beliefs are foiled in this world of modern ambiguity and conditional ethics. His work is funny, dramatic, analytical and literary. The attorney-cum-author uses his knack for research to glean telling details that, as in building a good case, lend added weight to his tales.
“I do a lot of research,” he says. “You’ve got to get your facts straight, and then you can do anything you want with them later.”
From 1987 to 1991 he was an associate (specializing in employment
discrimination law) with St. Louis’ largest firm, and before that a respiratory therapist in the intensive care unit at Clarkson Hospital. From working in the legal-medical arenas to holding odd jobs as a cab driver, house painter and psyche ward attendant (“to share some of those patients’ vivid delusional systems is an interesting experience”) to traveling across Europe and Africa, Dooling has a deep well of living to drawn on for his fiction. His stories feature naive white middle-class professionals, all animated extensions of himself, enmeshed in fever-pitch moral dilemmas not patently resolved by the end. Like a lawyer, he argues both sides of an issue in his narratives.
In addition to his novels he has penned a well-received volume of essays (Blue Streak) defending the use of offensive language and op-ed pieces for major publications that poke fun at the latest excesses on the social-cultural front, including a rip-roaring send-up of the President’s imbroglio with Miss Monica. He is currently writing screen adaptations of two of his novels for planned feature films.
In person, Dooling exhibits the same penetrating wit as his prose, although he seems too normal to be the voice behind the scathing black humor he relishes. Married with four children, he is a practicing Catholic. His wife, Kristin, is converting to the faith. The family drives from their southwest Omaha home to worship at a near north side church. Dooling writes from an office in the Indian Hills business district.
If ever a wolf, albeit an intellectual one, in sheep’s clothing it is the 44-year-old author. He has the jowly, post-cherubic face of an altar boy (he was one) flirting with middle-age debauchery. Look closely and his hail fellow-well met facade reveals a gleam in the eye and curl of the lip that betray the bemused, wry gaze of a born agitator who likes pricking the mendacity he sees all around him.
Why satire? “More than anything, I like to make people laugh,” he says. “I don’t want cheap laughs. I want you to discover something new about yourself you didn’t understand before. What interests me as a writer is people on the threshold struggling to organize the flawed parts of themselves into a good person.”
What sets him off on a satirical jag? “Hypocrisy. That’s probably the first thing that provokes me. Somebody saying one thing and doing something else,” he says. “When law and medicine pretend to be helping patients or clients and really it’s raw self-interest, than that’s satirical material. Medicine and law are perfect targets for satire just because they exercise so much control in our lives, and people resent it in a way. You want to bring down the high and mighty and make them just like everybody else. Satire is the great leveler.”
He especially likes deflating any pretensions litigation is a sedate reasoned process for resolving disputes. “It’s combat. It’s a contest and just because it’s essentially bloodless doesn’t make it any less violent. I’m not a big fan of litigation. I think it should be avoided at all costs.”
The looming monster of political correctness is among the trends raising Dooling’s hackles these days. “Because, again, it’s a hypocrisy of a kind,” he says. “The claim is you want diversity in everything, but the central paradox of political correctness is that proponents demand diversity in everything except thought. You have to think the same way as they do or else you’re the enemy. And also the notion you can control people’s thoughts by changing their language just repels me. As a writer, language is the most important thing in your life, and when people start telling you what you should say or not say, it makes you want to say exactly what they don’t want to hear. It makes you want to rebel.”
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed he ridiculed attempts at removing certain offensive words from Merriam-Webster dictionaries. One of those petitioning for the excision of hateful language, Kathryn Williams of Flint, Michigan, defended her position by saying, ‘If the word is not there, you can’t use it.” In response, Dooling wrote, “Following…Ms. Williams’s reasoning, we could also remedy the drug problem if we simply removed the words cocaine and heroin from our nation’s dictionaries, for then junkies would be unable to use them. How nice if ancient hatreds could be remedied with a little word surgery, a logos-ectomy to remove offensive words and the hateful thoughts lurking behind them.”
If it weren’t for his dead-on observations, Dooling could easily come off as a smart aleck who is clever with words but short on substance. He is, however, that rarest of commodities: A Swiftian satirist whose barbed, elegantly phrased comments are both funny and thought-provoking. Even when his points are made with dark humor, he avoids sounding contemptuous because he infuses his work with glints of his charming guile and frames his skepticism within a moral context. It makes perfect sense when you learn he grew up in a middle-class Catholic family of nine children and is the product of Jesuit educators. His father was an insurance claims adjustor. His mother, a nurse.
If nothing else, he’s proof “it’s possible to be Catholic and still be satirical,” he says, unloosing his hyena cackle laugh. Growing up in the Bemis Park area, he graduated from St. Cecilia Grade School and received his Jesuit “indoctrination” at Creighton Prep and later at St. Louis University, where he earned his bachelor’s in English and art history and his law degree. He credits the Jesuits for instilling in him “a disciplined approach to any field of knowledge.” Even a quick read of his work reveals both a complete grasp of a subject and a deft handling of it.
An avid reader since childhood, his love for writing began at Prep. There, a priest got him in the habit of keeping a vocabulary notebook, which he still maintains today. His ardor grew deeper in college, where he won a short story contest. “That was a big deal,” he says. “I just assumed I was going to be a writer by that time. That I was going to graduate and be getting published left and right.” It didn’t quite work out that way. He graduated, all right, supporting himself with day jobs while completing a novel and short stories, but “nothing was getting published.”
Frustrated, and desiring a change of scenery, he saved up for a year-long trip overseas. His 1982 travels across Europe and Africa served as the writer’s requisite expatriate adventure abroad. “I just had a feeling I wanted to see something besides this,” he says of America, “because this is an artificial world compared to the rest of the world.”
He wrote while away and returned with Critical Care partially completed and the idea for White Man’s Grave in embryo.
His seven-month stay in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, where he visited a friend working in the Peace Corps, “changed” Dooling and his take on America. “Somebody said, You don’t travel to see foreign countries, you travel to see your own country as a foreign country. That’s what I think a lot of writers have in the back of their minds when they travel. It just shakes everything up,” he says. “All of your assumptions about how life is lived are subverted. In the Third World people eat out of a bowl with their hands and squatting on a floor. No electricity, no running water. Everything you’ve arranged your life around back here is gone. It’s a valuable experience, especially for a young person. It’s very healthy.”
When he returned to the vulgar excess of the U.S. the dislocation was so intense that home seemed unreal, like a garish nightmare. He used his experience as the jumping-off point for a New Yorker-published short story, Bush Pigs. “Everything here looks obscene when you come back. It’s overpowering. Bush Pigs tells exactly what it’s like. It’s about a Peace Corps volunteer who comes back home after three years..and in the course of 24 hours has a psychotic breakdown, and it’s funny. It’s kind of a cult favorite among Peace Corps volunteers because they all feel a bit unsettled when they come home.”
In Dooling’s case he was unhinged, broke, and hungry for a new challenge, so he applied and was accepted to law school. Why the law?
“I knew that I liked to read and write and I thought if I went to law school I could at least make my living reading and writing.”
Preparing briefs and motions became his forte. Despite disparaging the law now, he says he enjoyed the profession and would return to it should his writing career falter. Fat chance.
Writing in his spare time, he finished Critical Care and, after years of trying to get somebody interested, finally sold it — to William Morrow — and upon its 1992 publication found himself both published and celebrated.
His long struggle should be a lesson in perseverance. “I always urge young writers to, as soon as they can, write a novel, even it it doesn’t get published, just so you get used to thinking that way. Send out a chapter with a query letter to 20 or 30 agents. You’ll get rejected, by all of them usually, but you might just get one or two who’ll say, ’Let me see the whole book.’ To be able to write a novel you have to have supreme self-confidence.”
His overstuffed office is evidence he saves “everything” he writes and will rummage through boxes and cabinets full of files to “plunder stuff.”
With the success of Critical Care he faced the decision of spending another four or five years shaping White Man’s Grave in between his law duties or quitting the practice to write full-time. He had a family. A mortgage. In the end he gave up a secure career for the mercurial world of writing, promptly moving his family from St. Louis to Omaha. “Realistically, I just didn’t feel I would be able to serve clients with all the time my writing career entailed, so I decided to take the plunge.” Besides, the compulsion to write was overwhelming. “I didn’t really have a choice. It’s not something I really have any control over. I don’t recommend people become writers unless they can’t help it.”
Similarly, he describes his penchant for satire as “an impulse” he cannot suppress, like being nervous or shy. “It’s not something I intentionally do. It just happens. I can start out writing seriously…and before I get half way through I start getting this risible impulse to tear down or make fun of, and it turns into satire.” If he can ascribe his inspiration to anything, it’s “the kindred spirits” he found reading such satirists as Joseph Heller, Tom Wolfe and Kurt Vonnegut in college.
But as anyone who writes seriously can attest, the process has less to do with heeding one’s muse than with tirelessly learning the craft. “When you’re young and read good writing you don’t realize why you like it better…you just do,” he notes. “But then the older you get, and especially if you’re growing as a writer, you come to realize that most really good writing is good because of the labor involved, not because of inspiration. It’s about taking out all the unnecessary words and making sure it’s in the active voice and all that, so that by the time the reader reads it they don’t even notice what happened or why it’s so appealing.”
That’s not to say he discounts the contributions of the unconscious: “It’s very important. I find when I am stuck on a bigger project it is because I’m not dreaming about it at night. I find when I’m really into a big project, like the end of a novel or the end of a screenplay, I pretty much dream about it all night and write about it all day.” When things are really flowing, and words just fill the page, he goes into “a kind of trance.” He says when ideas come to him in his sleep he’ll awaken and rush to get them down on paper, otherwise fearing “they won’t be there in the morning, they’ll be some ghost of what they were.”
Dooling, who composes on a computer, has no fixed writing routine. “Totally irregular. I’ll write for three weeks and then not write at all for two. When I am working, I might write 12 hours a day or I might get up in the middle of the night. You just live to be able to do it.” When stuck, he’ll move on to another project or occupy himself reading, e-mailing, filing, et cetera.
A fact of life for any published writer is working with editors. Dooling relies on editors to tell him “things you can’t tell yourself. A good editor kind of steers you. I couldn’t live without one.” If he can be faulted for anything, it’s losing the urgency of his stories amid too many ideas and too much word play. He admits a “weakness with plots.”
To date, his fiction has been informed by his experience and leavened with his imagination. He echoes what other authors have long been advising would-be scribes: Write about what you know.
“I always try to encourage young writers, especially, to try and personalize everything first and then hope that you take it up to the next level of art where it appeals to everyone. That’s what art is — when you take a particular experience and render it in such a way that other people read it and say, ‘Oh, I felt like that.’ You establish a relationship with your reader that way. I think the easiest way to get in trouble or to become cliche, and young writers do this a lot, is to base an emotional passage on some TV or movie image of emotion instead of an immediate thing from real life.”
Dooling mined the human misery he saw as a respiratory therapist, along with the savage humor he and his health care cohorts used as a coping strategy, as the basis for Critical Care . Its protagonist is Peter Werner Ernst, a young doctor stuck in a medical, legal, moral, ethical quagmire involving a dying man with two daughters warring over his life and will. Pressured from all sides, Ernst wavers whether to keep the man alive or allow him to die. Meanwhile, vegetative patients on the edge of hereafter confront the limbo of their life and eternal destiny.
Anyone that’s spent any time in a hospital will identify with this portrait of medical practitioners who view family as the enemy and regard patients as nicknames and numbers, like Orca, the Beached Female or, more cryptically, Bed Five.
The book’s opening passage sets the tone: “Dr. Peter Werner Ernst was the Internal Medicine Resident…presiding over the Ninth Floor Intensive Care Unit…Each pod in the octagonal Death Lab contained a naked, dying person…High in the corner of each pod, a color TV was mounted…The hanging televisions were obviously designed by an architect or a hospital administrator who knew almost nothing about ICU patients. When was the last time somebody had seen one of these stiffs sitting up in bed watching a ball game? Instead of their lives flashing before their eyes, these patients died slow deaths listening to American car commercials, the 2.9 percent financing, the unbelievable buyer protection plans.”
Sarcasm amidst mortality is hardly new. Dooling, though, elevates the death watch and end game of the ICU to new heights, cutting closer to the truth with humor than somber platitudes and hoary dramatics can do.
“What really fascinated me,” he says, “was the defense mechanism of dark humor. There’s this impulse you have to make the patient not human. Otherwise, you’re there all day long saying, ‘Oh, here’s a human being dying right in front of my eyes.’ Well, you can’t even function then, so there’s this tendency to make light of the situation, which enables you to carry on. It’s not an admirable thing, but it was fascinating to me how it works.”
As Ernst digs himself deeper and deeper in the mess, he begins doubting his own omniscience. At one point Dooling speculates on the question in the back of Ernst’s mind: Where is God in the midst of all this human suffering? Dooling’s wickedly funny answer begins:
“In college he (Ernst) had read that God was dead. In medical school, he learned that God was not dead. He was just very sick. God was probably pronounced dead prematurely. Instead of dying or being found murdered, God may have just slipped into a coma or had an attack of transient global amnesia (TGA), during which time He simply forgot He was God and left the universe to its own devices. Instead of announcing his debility to the world, maybe God just went into seclusion, the way ailing Russian premieres do…In the meantime, planet Earth fell apart. Things look bad for the world, but why jump to conclusions and pronounce God dead, when he probably just needs to be transferred to a crackerjack ICU equipped with the proper medical technology? Once God gets to feeling better He can go back to thinking of Himself as a doctor, in much the same way that doctors think of themselves as God.”
In White Man’s Grave Dooling draws on his African sojourn to explore the conflict arising when neurotic American culture meets mystical Sierra Leone culture. A character sums up the conflict with: “Back in America, demons inhabit the mind. Here, they inhabit the bush.” At first struck by the differences between the two worlds, Dooling became intrigued with the similarities after starting law school, particularly the parallels between the law and witchcraft.
“I encountered the phenomenon of bad medicine (hale) there, what we call witchcraft here. If you have an enemy and you want to seek revenge on him, but you can’t do it by, say, hitting him with a stick or something, then you go and you put a swear on him. If he hears about it, he’ll go and put a counterswear on you. Then you each have a witch person working on your behalf in the same way we hire lawyers here to resolve our intractable disputes. The impulse to litigate the lawsuit is to destroy the other person — not physically — but to destroy their life, to take all their money, to ruin their name. The same sort of thing with witchcraft. When I got a front row seat in the process called litigation I realized litigants hated each other every bit as much as villagers who decide to consult a witch.”
Like the ritual and gobbledygook that accompany a swear, he says, “the law is very much incantation. It really is.”
In Grave, an obsessive American lawyer, Randall Killigan, is a warrior-wizard whose fierce bearing and awesome power strike fear in opponents’ hearts. His well-ordered world unravels however when his son, Michael, a Peace Corps volunteer, goes missing in Sierra Leone and a totem-like bundle sent from Africa causes disturbing events/visions.
The novel, a 1994 National Book Award finalist, follows the dual odyssey of Randall, who battles combatants he can’t comprehend, and of Boone Westfall, a friend of Michael’s who goes to Africa in search of him. Michael’s disappearance, rumored to be linked to witches or rebels or both, brings the blundering Westfall in contact with things he can’t grasp. As the two disparate worlds merge, a surreal adventure unfolds that finds protagonists seeking remedies based in faith, myth, fact.
Like Westfall, Dooling arrived in Sierra Leone woefully ignorant of the place. Beset by violence in recent years, the nation was peaceful when Dooling visited but plagued by corruption and poverty. And like Westfall he was appalled by the sickness he found, dismayed by the stock villagers put in sorcery, weakened by malaria and dysentery and, yet, still charmed by the people’s unfailing generosity and the landscape’s stark beauty.
Grave offers many views of Sierra Leone, ranging from the cynical to the rapturous. In Aruna Sisay and Michael Killigan, Dooling gives us Westerners fluent in native languages and customs who upbraid Westfall, a typical poo-mui (white person) for his ethnocentrism. The model for Sisay and Killigan was Dooling’s friend, Michael O’Neill, who spoke like a native, owned the respect of village elders and disabused Dooling of his prejudices.
After the book’s publication, some real life events ended up mirroring fictionalized ones when O’Neill, like Killigan, was captured and held by rebels and was the target of apparent witchcraft.
While never branded a witch, as Westfall is in the book, Dooling did come under suspicion for breaking various taboos. “As a writer and reader I was used to spending time alone,” he says, “and anybody who keeps spending time alone is a little suspect because it’s such a social place. And the more I asked about bad medicine the more suspicious they became, like, ‘You must have a reason to be asking these questions. You must want to use some witchcraft.’ I was never accused of witchcraft — nothing close to it — but it was easy to imagine.”
Another form of black magic — brain research — next drew Dooling’s attention and resulted in his latest novel, Brain Storm, published last spring by Random House. Specifically, he became fascinated with how new insights are challenging “the assumption that something’s in control of your brain besides your brain. Everybody calls it something different,” he says. “In psychology, it’s ego. In the law, free will. In religion, the soul. But the more we learn about the brain the question becomes, Is your mind anything more than your brain? Is consciousness just cellular activity or do you have a soul? So then I started thinking about dramatizing this somehow.”
He investigated how the latest brain findings might color a basic tenet of the law — intent — in a criminal case. The possibilities intrigued him. “Let’s say you come home one night and suddenly, totally out of character, you start swearing and being violent to your mom or wife or whoever, and a week later you go on a rampage. And let’s say it’s found a huge tumor is pressing on the part of your brain that makes you violent. Think about that trial. How much are you responsible? It doesn’t seem like a very complicated question if you stay with the older technologies, but it does the more you use today’s enhanced measures of brain metabolism. If blood flow is reduced to certain parts of the brain — the frontal lobes for instance, which exercise self-control — it might explain why someone has such a terrible temper. Does he get punished the same as everyone else?
“Free will is a fundamental assumption in the law and if neuroscience keeps going in the direction that it’s going, they’re going to collide.”
That’s precisely what happens in Brain Storm . Set in the near future, the book follows attorney Joe Watson preparing his first criminal defense case. His defendant is a virulent white racist, James Whitlow, accused of murdering a black man and facing execution under a hate crime statute. In a Faustian bargain Watson teams with Rachel Palmquist, a neuroscientist temptress, to build a defense even he doesn’t believe that posits a cyst caused Whitlow’s hate-tinged violence. As Watson presses for a reduced count, Palmquist pursues surgically-repairing Whitlow’s hate-filled brain.
Palmquist sums up Whitlow with the chilling appraisal “he’s a big mouse with an advanced brain” that’s “malfunctioned” and needs repair. Short of repair, she disdains execution as “a waste of money” and instead advocates “vivisecting” him and his ilk “like guinea pigs, if necessary, to find out why they short-circuited. Killing only puts them out of their misery.”
Watson, a nerd more at home in cyberspace than a courtroom, is a conflicted Catholic in turmoil over: Defending a client he detests yet feels is being railroaded by hate-crime hysteria; his superior’s desire to have him plead Whitlow out; his partner’s specious ethics; and his own guilty attraction to Palmquist, who tests his marital fidelity and shakes his faith.
For the record, Dooling is, like Watson, “just trying to function in a world of science while believing that you have a soul and free will.” He says Brain Storm is in part a cautionary tale reminding us that perhaps the reach of brain scanning technology “exceeds our grasp” of what human consciousness is or is not when applied to the law, religion and the like.
Dooling’s caustic, rather cinematic novels are proving attractive to Hollywood. Critical Care was made into a feature by Sidney Lumet. Dooling was working on an adaptation of Brain Storm with noted producer-director Alan J. Pakula, but after the filmmaker’s recent death is unsure where it sits. He is adapting White Man’s Grave for Quentin Tarantino’s producing partner, Lawrence Bender. A newcomer to screenplay writing, Dooling says, “It’s harder than I expected. You’re constantly compressing, throwing things out…selecting crucial plot points from your book and visualizing them into short visual images. I’m just learning how to do it.”
He is undecided what his next project will be. “I have ideas and so on, but I’m not sure if I will do another novel, an original screenplay or what.” A dream project he’d like to see realized is the publication of his collected short stories. Meanwhile, what’s catching his satirist’s eye? “Genetics. Especially with the announcement they’re going to be growing human stem cells in cow eggs. Are we going to have cows with human heads or what? This is pretty scary stuff. That’s the fun part.”
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