Winterhill, by Christopher Fahy
Limerock Books, Thomaston, Maine, 2018
240 pages, paperback, $15.95
Reviewed by Dana Wilde
Jerry Prince seems like a decent enough guy. A little adrift, at the outset of Christopher Fahy’s latest novel, Winterhill, and underemployed as a certified nurse’s aide in a small hospital on Maine’s coast. But it seems like bigger things could be ahead for him, as they have for the dozen or so years since a foot injury put an early end to his promising baseball career.
In the hospital he tangles with an unruly old patient named Bix Billington, who it turns out is the hospital’s former chief of neurology, now suffering from late-life heart issues and monomania of a sort. Billington takes a shine to Jerry and persuades him to bend the hospital rules a bit and learn how to administer a special “neuromassage,” which seems to be a cross between Reiki, accupressure, and certain aspects of chiropractic.
Inspired by Jerry’s great touch, Billington hires him onto the staff of his private clinic, which specializes in treating people with neurological ailments—especially autistic children and stroke-smitten seniors. The therapy involves daily neuromassage and also “neurostimulation” applied through a science-fiction-like electrical contraption that stimulates nerves to produce at low levels pleasure and at higher levels pain that refreshes.
Billington, a sort of medical mad scientist, claims to have reams of statistics showing that the neuro-treatments help improve overall health. He himself, despite daily high-level doses, doesn’t appear to be getting any better.
Whether all this is on the up-and-up proves to be no matter to Jerry, who takes the opportunity to get out of CNA work and into wages more lucrative. Another Billington recruit, Iris, catches Jerry’s eye right off the bat. As she rejects his initial advances, we tumble to the fact that Jerry has kind of a hair-trigger libido, which is amusing at first, but becomes ookier and ookier as the story goes on. Soon he’s paying regular evening visits to the lithe, alcoholic 50-year-old widow who funds Billington’s operation.
Jerry’s happy-go-lucky but ethically rudderless ambitions, along with the dubious principles of the clinic, are the driving conflicts of the rest of the plot, and while this whole story is well-seasoned with wry humor and the upbeat atmosphere characteristic of Chris Fahy’s writing, the truth is this is a pretty dark book. Every scene, page, and sentence skates like the wind, and it’s a speedboat read. But if you take the events to heart and think too hard about Prince and Billington, you might find yourself disturbed.
I wonder, for example, if the story isn’t based somehow very loosely on the life and works of Wilhelm Reich. A disciple of Carl Jung, Reich set up shop in Hancock County and then Rangeley, to develop orgone energy “accumulators,” one use of which was to treat cancer. The federal government got wind of the operation and decided, basically, that Reich’s science was fraudulent. In 1956, he was tried for defying a court order to dismantle the accumulators and sent to prison, where he died.
I stress that any possible parallels to Reich in Winterhillare very loose. His work is still discussed and debated today. Billington and Prince are different kinds of characters with a different kind of outcome.
Chris Fahy, who lives in Thomaston, is the author of Chasing the Sun, a minor classic of Maine literature based generally on the life of the well-known postwar poet and Rockland native Leo Connellan. Fahy’s fiction also includes books such as The Christmas Star, Red Tape, Gone from the Game, Limerock: Maine Stories,and others, and he is one of the perennial organizers of the Tenants Harbor poetry readings held each summer.
Also released this year is his poetry collection, My Life In Water, available along with Winterhilland his other books through online book sellers and from Limerock Books: www.christopherfahy.com, 15 Mechanic St., Thomaston, ME 04861, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dana Wilde lives in Troy. He writes the Backyard Naturalist and Off Radar columns for the centralmaine.com newspapers and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His recent book is Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina in the Maine Woods,available from North Country Press: northcountrypress.com/summer-to-fall.html.