P&S Journal: Winter 1995, Vol.15, No.1
Doctors in Print
On a Moment's Notice
By Philip Duffy
Reviewed by Peter Wortsman
Philip Duffy'47, former director of neuropathology at P&S and author of two medical texts and numerous scientific papers, brings a calm remove and clinical precision to the pursuit of fiction. Both the strengths and the flaws of "MOMENTS," his first collection of short stories, are rooted in the author's ability and compulsion to diagnose the human condition and name what ails it.
In the gem of the collection, "The Alabaster Maid," parents troubled by their daughter's strange detachment and inexplicable symptoms-"feelings...like snakes crawling around in her stomach"-take her to the protagonist, a general practitioner. "We're hoping you can tell us what it is," the parents tell the doctor. Unable to identify any physical cause, the doctor remarks on the child's striking beauty. Even though he can still do nothing for her two visits later, he cannot put her face out of his mind. Years later, called in for medical consultation at a psychiatric hospital, the doctor is horrified to recognize the same young woman, now a diagnosed schizophrenic. The clinical label can hardly contain his anguish in the face of a tragedy he was powerless to avert. In a mere eight pages, Dr. Duffy's concise "patient history" in fact bares the heart and soul of the doctor.
At his best, the author highlights the epiphanies that ruffle and occasionally alter the ordinary flow of life. In morality tales like "Meretricious," "Temptation and Sanctity," "Wanting More," and "The Beauty Trap," the same diagnostic urge-the need to tag and name what's wrong-gives short shrift to the profound conundrums of the human species, squeezing a simple message out of a complex condition.
Written with a cautious reticence, these well-plotted, traditionally structured tales, complete with premise, denouement, and moral ending, satisfy and frustrate in varying degrees. There is a tantalizing subtext here, a hint of the subliminal embodied by the repeated appearance in various stories of a female persona-part sprite, part saint, part muse, part idol-now a pianist, now a high school belle of the ball, now a beautiful parishioner tempting a priest. "MOMENTS" courts the muse while holding her at arm's length. The passion is left unspoken.