Selected Poetry: 1974-
Corridor O is a brutal work, in the sense that death from malignant disease—one of the novel’s primary themes—is also brutal. The book has been said to have, however, a mesmerizing yet macabre beauty. The march of cancer cells across the field of a microscope can have, depending upon the state of mind of the beholder, the vibrant radiance of a stained glass window.
"Corridor O" was a physical suite of rooms in an aging hospital that no longer exists. The oncology service home based on Corridor O evolved into a major cancer treatment center. Much of the novel celebrates the labor of the individuals who engaged in this noble work. Because of these endeavors, great progress in the treatment of malignant disease has been made. Many of the cancers afflicting the characters in this novel are now curable.
In the beginning of the story, Jack Fleming, one of the central characters, immerses himself totally in his work. He is able to tolerate the pain and suffering afflicting his patients by keeping intellectual distance from them and by viewing oncology abstractly. But then Dr. Fleming himself develops an illness. During his convalescence, Fleming is forced to confront the reality of what is actually happening to his patients on Corridor O.
How does the human spirit deal with the events depicted in this book? How can an individual of sensibility and feeling deal with the tragedies that happen on a cancer ward? Making a Kierkegaardian leap into faith would suffice, but such a leap is not always an option.
Jack Fleming attempts to find some theological or philosophical justification for the human condition, as epitomized by the fate of his patients on Corridor O. His ongoing quest for truth and the final illness of a young girl, Sue Ann, lead Fleming to an epiphany in the autopsy room that both fascinates and terrifies him.
Ultimately, Fleming is unable to resolve his intellectual pain. The sheer magnitude of the despair he is forced to witness literally consumes him. His more successful colleagues are able to overcome the emotional impact of their experiences and build an edifice of great social value.
Corridor O, the novel, could have told the story of the creation of a great cancer treatment center exclusively. The result might have been far more uplifting. But Jack Fleming’s failure to adapt entails, in the view of the author, a much more intriguing albeit sobering tale.
Corridor O leads to conclusions perhaps difficult to accept. The taste of the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil can leave a bitter taste indeed. In order to survive, human beings may not be able to look too closely at the human condition. Perhaps a healthy degree of denial is necessary for survival. Denial may be the absolute prerequisite that provides the human spirit with the strength necessary for the heroic task of building institutions, secular or ecclesiastical, that offer solace.
Jack Fleming was a talented young physician who ventured too far into the darkness. Denial became no longer possible for him. Only the sympathetic reader can decide if his story deserves to be told.
The Overture to Corridor O, "Cowboy O’Rourke and the Big Brass Band," appeared in an anthology entitled, The Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Fiction, edited by James Tipton and Robert E. Wegner. The Third Coast was published by the Wayne State University Press in 1982.