THE LAWS OF INVISIBLE THINGS One of the limitations of much modern fiction is the fact that its authors spend so much of their lives sitting alone in a room. Thus fiction fashioned by practitioners of another profession can be refreshing for the information and insights that experience outside a book-lined room provides. Frank Huyler is a medical doctor, and his first novel, The Laws of Invisible Things, benefits enormously from combining familiarity with medicine with a fine writers perceptiveness about the world at large. The protagonist, Michael, is also a doctor, who has joined a small practice in North Carolina after his divorce. He sees a patient whose peculiar symptoms do not conform to any known disease, but before he has a chance to diagnose the mans ailment, the patient dies in a fire. Thereafter, Michael himself begins to demonstrate the same elusive symptoms, whose subtly mystical character and tendency to come and go torturously suggest that the problem may be in his head. (Guzman) At 35, Michael Grant is trying to start a new life.
Fresh out of medical school, residency, and a bad marriage, Mike has moved to a small city in North Carolina and joined a local practice. His partner, Ronald Gass, is experienced, patient, and somewhat cynicala good mentor for a young practitioner. But Gasss wife died a few months after Mike arrived, and her grieving husband has since left nearly all of the work in Mikes hands. A while ago, Mike treated an eight-month-old baby, a girl who died of meningitis, possibly because he had not prescribed antibiotics before the diagnosis was in. Although he followed correct procedures, Mike was also careless, overlooking certain lab reports, and feels secretly guilty about the case. Just out of training, Michael is in his seventh month of practice with an established internist in a medium-sized North Carolina city when the young granddaughter of an African-American minister dies in his care.
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Because he thinks he might have been less than thorough in handling the case, he agrees to honor the ministers request to examine his son- the dead girls father- who is also ailing. During the examination, Mike notices strange discolorations on the inside of Jonass mouth, white spiral markings that correspond to no known disease, and discovers that his blood count is dangerously low. Tests for AIDS are negative, and nothing in the standard medical literature describes Jonass condition. Mike becomes excited, thinking that he may have discovered a new disease, only to be stymied when Jonas dies in a trailer fire a few days later. Though an autopsy confirms Mikes suspicions that he was venturing into uncharted waters, with the patient gone there is nothing for him to work on-until he starts to suffer the same symptoms. But Gass cant see the spiral discolorations on the back of Mike s throat.
Has he really caught the disease (whatever it may be)? Or is he just losing his marbles? (Finley) The exam reveals a curious white tendril-like pattern on the back of the patients throat and inside his eye. Regrettably, before he has enough lab work to make a diagnosis, the patient quickly worsens and dies in a house fire. When Michael begins to experience similar symptoms and almost dies, too, he is convinced he has encountered an insidious new infectious disease. Unable to convince his colleagues, the disease-ravaged Michael embarks with Nora, his senior partners daughter, on a quest to identify the nameless scourge. Evidence leads Michael to exhume the body of the elderly ministers granddaughter, and the trail takes them to a remote mountaintop. Deftly plotted and rich with psychological and ethical nuance, this fine debut succeeds equally as medical suspense novel and understated morality play. Within days, Gass dies of natural causes, Jonas is dead from the disease, and Grant himself is hospitalized with the same symptoms. Huyler combines the melodramatic elements of a medical thriller with rich characters and the same fine writing and eye for telling details he demonstrated in his first book. In the process, he explores doctor fallibility, race relations, and the limits of both faith and reason.
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Mr. Huyler manages to inject his story with a high degree of suspense. But its primary pleasures, as with so many good novels, come line by line and scene by scene. The book is rife with stoically related medical detail so vivid as to make the faint-hearted squirm. No layman would ever have been able to craft the scene in which a catheter is inserted into a pigs heart by watching ER . Observations such as his patients were more likely to talk when they knew they would not be touched have a ring of authenticity that is hard to fake.
The clear, spare text is also sprinkled with insights of a broader character: It was the kind of neighborhood that people both aspired to and settled for, while Michaels father was an air-force navigator whose entire working life had been spent both hoping something would happen and hoping it wouldnt.
Huyler, Frank. The Laws of Invisible Things. Holt. Apr. 2004. Finley, Will. The Laws of Invisible Things, review.
Kirkus Reviews, 1/15/2004, Vol. 72 Issue 2, p. 54. Guzman, Yan. Huyler, Frank: Fiction. The Economist, December 2004.