canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Dr. Swarthmore 
by Alexander Scala
The Porcupine’s Quill, 2001

Reviewed by Anne Borden

When I was in college, there was this guy Mike who was known for his imitations of various professors and kids from our dorm. He would regale us with this mockery over beer; the more we drank, the crueler his imitations grew. The group of us would laugh, couldn’t help it, until our bellies ached. But later, after, it would all seem sort of nauseating. Was his imitation of Professor Jackman irresistibly on-target, or was it simply the quick-wittedness of Mike’s act that had us captivated?

Similar questions swam through my mind as I made my way through Dr. Swarthmore, a novel about turn-of-the-(19th)century religious hysteria and hucksterism. The huckster in question is Dr. Swarthmore, a rural Indiana preacher who has written a tract describing a late-night vision he’d had of the rapture. It’s a vision with a twist; Jesus appears in a cheap suit and excoriates the crowd that they’ve been "sold". Alexander Blount is a local salesman who seeks to profit by mass-producing Dr. Swarthmore’s pamphlet, creating a "buzz" and distributing it throughout the state. The pamphlet catches on, but its veracity is challenged by Dr. Beecham , a heartless physician and professional skeptic. Will Blount and Swarthmore ultimately triumph (and profit)? Or will science convince the masses to rebel against the swindling pair?

Dr. Swarthmore takes on religious retrenchment in turn-of-the-century America by playing up Indiana locals’ fears of Armageddon in the new century. "People were expecting something to happen, but they had no explicit notion" (58). The problem is that there is little depth in the author’s treatment of the clash between science and Christianity in America’s heartland. The church congregants come across as country-hick idiots, because the context of their crises is not developed with enough depth. Minor characters read like a "parade of foils" ("The Landlady" "Dr. Swarthmore’s Housekeeper" "the girl on the floor", etc.). While Swarthmore and Blount’s foibles and peculiarities are mirthfully noted, their inner conflicts are not clearly elucidated. Dr. Beecham’s cold-hearted treatment of his patients seems implausible, and we are not privy to his motivations towards skepticism. Also, the first 55 pages of the book, which make up Swarthmore’s visions seemed lacking in narrative continuity.

The book contains gorgeous thick description of the rural environs, and its tone would make for fun reading aloud (a long car trip comes to mind). The syntax is extremely authentic. The world of Dr. Swarthmore made me laugh, but in the end the characters didn’t sustain my interest.

Anne Borden lives in Toronto, where she works as a writer and editor.







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