Friday, July 3, 2020
Emergency Calling Nurse Mallon
By Jeanne Bowman, ©1964
Cover illustration by Mort Engel
Beautiful Marjory Mallon welcomed the surging drama of her new job at Southern Emergency Hospital, for it helped her forget a private sorrow—and a crushed romance. But as the young nurse plunged herself into the hectic routine of critical accidents and crucial operations, she found that her own heart was imperiled by the attentions of a handsome intern and a dashing resident…
“That kid’s all right, even if she is pretty.”
“A nurse’s most valuable asset was a sense of humor.”
“What was she—a woman or a mouse? Ah, a nurse.”
“Marjory learned some new words she doubted she’d ever use.”
“On visiting the convicted man at the penitentiary a year later, he had found him gay.”
Marjory Mallon has just left a private duty during which her patient died; she’s looking for some excitement after caring for a patient in a coma. She signs on at Southern Emergency, “a rugged assignment” at a pink concrete building on the edge of an industrial district with “low class homes and incomes.” Another reason for her search for action is that during her three months living with the Kelmer family she and son Noel had fallen in love, but on her deathbed (this must have been before the coma) Mrs. Kelmer made the pair promise they would not marry for two years, and in that time see each other “as seldom as possible.” This from a woman who claims she loves Marjory as a daughter; it’s a bizarre tactic to ensure marital bliss.
But it’s actually not a bad idea, as Noel is one of those VNRN archetypes, the idle rich. “Let’s face it,” he tells Marjory. “I have no real purpose. I can’t see going into some job someone else needs for a living.” Visiting Marjory at the hospital one evening, though, one of the hospital’s frequent mass traumas occurs, this time a crash between a packed car and a van. Noel is pressed into action, and when it’s over he has a reason for living! “I’ve found a goal,” he tells Marjory. “I want to isolate the suicide motivation behind so many of these crashes. I want figures, studies of individuals. I am going to try to perfect what insurance companies are doing: find the wrecker before he kills himself and other innocent people.” To that end he starts hanging out at S.E. with Drs. Stedman and Compton, seeing Marjory almost daily but exchanging mere pleasantries and not much else with her. For her part, Marjory is dismissive of Noel’s mission—and frankly, you can’t honestly blame her—and is annoyed that he’s not paying more attention to her. “She felt like a wrapped bandage stuck far back on a shelf, to be used if and when those on the forward part had disappeared.” She’s also annoyed that Dr. Compton doesn’t pay her more attention, either, the hypocrite: “No wonder the other young nurses developed psychosomatic heart trouble,” she thinks as she moons over his blue eyes. “Fortunate she had the thought of Noel to act as an antibiotic to inflamed emotions.” Yeah, right. Back to dreaming of Dr. Compton: “He was adorable, Marjory thought, and how utterly handsome when he laughed. She just loved him.” Quick, pass the Neosporin! In the meantime, it’s one crisis after another at the hospital. Kids shot with revolvers found in the house. At least four more car crashes. Homeless families giving birth in their car. Victims of a bar fight. And, of course, “Sunday was suicide day.”
Through it all we’re treated to author Jeanne Bowman’s patented psychobabble, which is to say, a lot along the lines of Noel’s proposed thesis, that physical disease and trauma comes from psychological damage. “Mangled legs and a mangled conscience,” Marjory says of a car driver and the man he’d run over. “She wondered which of the two conditions would be easier to live with.” She and Dr. Compton seem to be social workers as much as healthcare practitioners, as they are always coming up with things like new coats for a stabbing victim whose coat was slashed: “He’ll heal faster, the patient, if a new coat’s waiting,” Dr. Compton explains. Dr. C also sets up a homeless couple in a rundown country cabin he’d inherited, knowing that the husband will work more than full-time to fix it up for his expanded family: “When you give to any but the defeated, you reach down to them. Soon their incentive muscles grow flabby. They simply sit and wait for further gifts.” Dr. Compton is full of such bon mots, including, if you can stand it, “If we can catch them before they have become exposed to the virus, defeat, they have a chance.”
In her spare time, Marjory is also working on Dr. Stedman, the floozy, and has several dates with him: “Marjory dressed with care, wishing she had bought a different type of hat, something to stun the eye of one Dr. Stedman.” (Noel, bizarrely, stops Marjory in passing to let her know he approves.) She gets what she wants, sort of, when Dr. Stedman proposes 16 pages from the end, which is when we finally learn his first name—Stanton. Well, author Jeanne Bowman has always had a thing for alliterative names. At least Dr. Stedman gets one; we never learn poor Dr. Compton’s first name. Marjory is saved from having to answer him—or Noel, who comes crashing in minutes later to tell her that his father has released them from the promise they made Mrs. Kelmer to wait two years—because of a massive explosion in the slums next to the hospital. Gosh, what a unique idea! The next few days and pages are filled with caring for the victims, and at the end the outraged citizenry have stormed City Hall and demanded that a beautiful neighborhood be built in the slum’s place. Sounds like gentrification if you ask me, but how the poor are going to afford the new apartments is not addressed, which for Ms. Bowman is like missing the fat pitch right down the middle; if she’d had her eye on the ball, she could have expounded for several chapters on this theme. The unintended consequences of this redevelopment is that the hospital too is going to be torn down, so Marjory is going to have to look for a new job. Good thing both doctors have offered her one, and she has those two marriage proposals to consider—plus a date with Dr. Compton, in which they have hamburgers with onions because they have no more patients, “and if we both have them—” Uh oh. Here comes proposal number three, the most bizarre yet:
“Mallon? That is, Marjory—”
“Your diagnosis is correct,” she murmured.
“That I do love you? But I could not—”
“Diagnose me? You were right. My condition hadn’t developed.”
“Stop it,” he says, and we readers are right there with him.
It must be confessed that as irritating as I found this book, it’s not as bad as many of Jeanne Bowman’s books; I could actually just be having an anaphylactic reaction to the merest whiff of Ms. Bowman’s disorienting prose, far too much of which I have had to endure. Remember, she’s scored the #3 spot on the Worst Writers list on this year’s VNRN Awards, and I had to endure ten of her books to put her there. Beyond the pop psychology, the dizzying number of medical emergencies, and the complete lack of investment in the characters’ emotional lives while simultaneously suggesting they are all in a stew of attraction for each other, culminating in automatic proposals utterly devoid of feeling, there is the lack of basic housekeeping, such as a lot of incorrect medicine in this book. This sort of inattention to detail is a pet peeve; you should not write about a subject if you can’t be bothered to look up the details. A patient with an inner ear infection is said to be passing out all the time, which is not a symptom of an ear infection, and can’t be chalked up to old-timey ignorance. Carbon monoxide poisoning is treated with transfusion, which maybe it once was, and “heat to stimulate circulation,” which it does not, and we are also told that in this condition the poisoned blood “was filled with minute air bubbles.” No, that’s the bends, honey. So much to quibble about, so little time. Suffice to say that if you must read Jeanne Bowman, this is not her worst, but you can certainly do a lot better—if you pick a completely different author.