Monday, October 18, 2010

Backstage Nurse

By Jane Converse, ©1969
Cover illustration by David Blossom

Nurse Laverne Banks had never tapped a toe nor sung a song onstage, but Dr. Eric McLory was performing in the hospital talent show, so she joined the cast to be near him. When she met Dr. Phillip Hume at the tryouts and agreed to accept his wife as a private patient, the music and laughter at rehearsals became a counterpoint to tears and turmoil on duty, and the stage setting a backdrop for a real-life drama.


“No use your hanging around here for the tryouts. … No use we all should suffer. I hear there’s a dowager from the Auxiliary who’s going to chirp opera, and some kooky doctor’s wife is bringing her kids in to do an adagio number. Two little brats that throw their kid sister up in the air and try to catch her on the first bounce.”

After channeling Joan Crawford as Mommie Dearest in Nurse on Trial, Jane Converse has now turned to Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” for inspiration for Backstage Nurse. In other words, both books are eerily similar. With Nurse on Trial, it’s the faded neurotic movie star who abruptly drops dead after being given a few pills by her nurse; in Backstage Nurse, it’s the were-you-ever-famous? neurotic Dolly Joy, once a would-be child star driven relentlessly by her stage mother, who abruptly drops dead after being given a few pills by her nurse.

Laverne Banks—maybe this was once a reasonable name to give a character—is dating resident Eric McLory, who like all sensible interns has sworn not to marry before he is well-established in his practice. She wants to spend more time with him, so when Laverne learns that Eric is going to be playing his guitar in a show put on by the hospital auxiliary, she decides to audition as well, so at least she can see him twice a week at rehearsals. In the meantime, she is hired to nurse the wife of philandering Dr. Phillip Hume.

Dolly Joy—“How’s that for a theatrical name?” Phillip asks Laverne—is a hypochondriac recluse. “The formerly skinny ‘child star’ was still recognizable by her vapid, somewhat frightened pale blue eyes and pasty complexion, but she had acquired mounds of flabby white flesh and was so grossly overweight that she seemed incapable of moving from the disordered bed. A frilly, soiled pink nightgown exposed fat, chalky white arms … The pulpy round face was framed by strands of drab brown hair, as unkempt and unattractive as everything else about the young woman.”

When she meets Laverne, the first thing that Dolly’s mother, Vida Foulkes, does is show her all the framed photographs of a prepubescent Dolly Joy, back when she still had promise: “ ‘This is Dolly when she won third prize at the Kiwanis Club amateur night,’ ” Vida tells Laverne. Vida’s dialogue mostly consists of screaming at someone: Dr. Hume for his extracurricular activities, Dolly for letting her down, Laverne for allegedly pursuing Dr. Hume: “I gave my whole life to make a star out of Dolly Joy. I could still do it, if I didn’t have people like you and Phillip stabbing me in the back, trying to undermine by daughter’s confidence in me,” she shrieks at Laverne.

Laverne attempts to cheer up Dolly by doing her hair and putting her on a diet. I do have to give her credit for brooking with a lot less nonsense than her predecessor from Nurse on Trial, Jennifer Mellin, ever did: “Get hold of yourself,” she tells her patient. “If you don’t want to help yourself, Dolly, it’s not fair to any of us for me to keep this job.” Dolly swears she’ll reform, but always backslides—then Laverne gets the idea to have Dolly audition for the hospital review. It turns out that Dolly can actually sing the blues, and blows everyone away with her performance. “How many white singers let go like that?” marvels the review’s director. But success is short-lived—two lines into her next number, Dolly keels over on the stage. Who killed her? Dr. Hume is the principle suspect, though the press is convinced that Laverne has a hand in it. All is revealed at the inquest, of course, in stereotypical fashion, when someone in the height of a furious diatribe lets something slip, and then it all comes tumbling out.

Backstage Nurse is a pleasant book with well-drawn characters and amusing writing. It’s got more story line and backbone than Nurse on Trial, and the whodunit mystery of who killed Dolly is given more play and is more tightly written (if still fairly obvious). But on the whole, I might have liked it more if I hadn’t already read another version of it in Nurse on Trial.

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