May 2006

Kelly Zavala


Physical: An American Checkup by James McManus

Let’s face it. The average American does not like to go to the doctor. We know we need to, but still we put off the tetanus shots, the yearly physicals, the gimme-some-more-magic-pills-to-kill-my-pneumonia checkups. Thank goodness we’re not alone. Author James McManus writes about mortality, immortality, and the fears, crutches, and bad habits that revolve around that necessary but ever-feared doctor’s visit. Already praised and popular for his book Positively Fifth Street, McManus continues to wow us with his elegant prose, biting sarcasm, and bull-headed determination in his newest book, Physical: An American Checkup.

McManus doesn’t waste any time grabbing our attention. “The truth is I don’t think I’m going to die. Not today, not tomorrow, not in 2067. Not me.” That he is “a baby boomer gone mostly gray on the top and squishier than I’d like to be through the middle” doesn’t seem to bother him. After all, McManus says, “I’m bullet-proof baby,” a fact not the least bit true. After a painful bout of diverticulitis, and with a family history of conditions longer than Santa’s naughty or nice list, McManus is forced to face his own mortality. When McManus’s physician requires a follow-up colonoscopy, a friend suggests a trip to the Mayo Clinic. Why not get an “executive checkup” to go with that colonoscopy? Thus, Physical was born.

McManus recalls his tour of the Mayo Clinic in exquisite detail. Readers will cringe at the thought of what the poor man had to go through. After the Mayo Clinic experience, McManus dives into the history of smoking and the progress, or anti-progress, of stem cell research as related to his family history of heart problems and his daughter’s battle with juvenile diabetes.

The voice of this book is in-your-face intense. McManus is an expert at simultaneously wielding beautiful prose and his own sarcastic, cynical views. While struggling with his second wife’s sudden desire to have children and his own desire not to “mess it up” the second time around, McManus writes, “High in the mountains that Halloween Eve, with preposterously excellent moonlight ricocheting off the deepest freshwater in Europe, it finally sank in for me that only a bona fide fuckwad would compromise the health of his beautiful young wife while depriving her of parenthood.”

It is refreshing to read an author who is not afraid to make fun of himself. Besides the references to squishy bellies and calling himself the “old fart dad,” McManus also talks about the placebo effect. He engages the reader in his crybaby mindset while talking about how the expense of his pills must mean they work better. Despite being afraid of doctors, he also puts a lot of faith in them, all the while subscribing to some "ancient" medical remedies from his grandmother as a means of comfort. After picking up medication he writes, “Even with our Cigna co-payment, the five pills cost thirty dollars, which inspires in me extra faith that they’ll work: a market-based variation on the placebo effect. I also buy a pair of $6.99 gray felt slippers, since these might help too.” We can all understand this, or at least get a laugh out of it. Combined with such quips as joking about saving leftover prescriptions for his “party stash,” what gets presented is a real sense of the narrator and what he’s all about.

McManus starts out subtle and gets stronger as the book goes on with his political views. He is very clear on what he believes and seamlessly ties in poignant jabbers to get political blood boiling. In response to beliefs that every cell is human, McManus patronizingly writes, “No pro-choice liberal would let researchers destroy anything recognizably human, just as no pro-life conservative… objects to drawing blood from an infant, which effectively 'murders' the blood.” He is outraged that the government wants to ban something for its potential for disaster instead of viewing it for the guaranteed miracle of saving lives. In discussing the Koreans’ success at extracting stem cells from cloned human embryos, McManus distastefully states that “specific advances have always come in bunches, but not under this president’s auspices.” You can almost taste the sour in McManus’s mouth.

McManus writes also about how smoking became socially acceptable. “Cut to the twentieth century. Real men smoke, nice women don’t. Marketers are going to fix that.” The history is completely factual, 100% clear, accessible, and still manages to not bore us to tears like a history textbook might. There are two categories of writing present in the book. The beginning is about both McManus’s family and his trip to the Mayo Clinic. The latter half is much more political and much less controlled. It seems as if McManus is trying to validate himself and his habitual smoking by relaying its grounded status in society. Instead, in giving us everything there is to know about smoking, the section ends up feeling like just a tangent, an aside to the story.

The stem cell chapters are a little too much for the average reader as well. While all the information is clear and pointedly pro-stem cell research, page upon page of information is not necessary to the story. The back of the book is almost misleading, actually.  It reads “Physical is the story of a hard-living, happily married, middle-aged American (the author) who gets a three day ‘executive checkup’ at the Mayo Clinic and is thereby forced to confront his mortality...” While that is present, certainly, it actually reads more like an extended research paper or a series of political rants. McManus even admits, however jokingly, that he wants to write another book as an excuse to get his heart checked out at the Mayo Clinic.

And why not? If McManus wants to trade a physical for a book deal, why not go for it? Physical, one example of a book by way of an examination, represents a commendable effort on McManus’s part to simultaneously get his views across and detail the overwhelming experience of a Mayo Clinic executive checkup. The first half of the book is a fascinating, deeply personal, humorous read, providing enough laugh-out-loud moments to keep anyone in stitches. The second half, while thought-provoking and intense, rambles away from the reader. Still, it’s better than a trip to your local M.D. Who wants to go to the doctor anyway?

Physical: An American Checkup by James McManus
Farrar Straus & Girroux
ISBN: 0374232024
272 Pages