The setup of The Incurables, the latest offering from Jon Bassoff, is both incredibly straightforward and wonderfully disturbing.
In the early 1950s, after decades of treating patients and pioneering the transorbital lobotomy, aka the “icepick lobotomy,” Dr. Walter Freeman is put out to pasture by the board of directors of the facility where he works.
Seems they’ve finally realized Freeman’s method of “curing” patients suffering from mental illness—inserting an icepick into the corner of each eye socket, hammering it through the orbital bone with a small hammer, then moving it around in order to sever the connections of the prefrontal cortex— isn’t the most humane.
Crushed that his work is being cast aside for newfangled measures and meds, Freeman decides to take his show on the road, and absconds with his last patient in the process. Going from town to town, Freeman “preaches” the power of the transorbital lobotomy to cure what ails you, or a loved one. He uses his patient, Edgar, as living proof of the miraculous power of the pick.
All was going well until Freeman and Edgar rolled into Burnwood, Oklahoma, a town so collectively down on its luck and bereft of hope it seems the entire populous could use Freeman’s cure. Problem is, another preacher has already set up shop in Burnwood, a man named Stanton who’s offering salvation via his son, Durango, the new Messiah. Seems a little showdown of faith vs. science is the order of the day. Add to the mix a temptress in the form of a young, violent, seemingly conscienceless prostitute named Scent whose mother, Baby, is rumored to have a hidden fortune, and The Incurables has all the ingredients for high drama.
On the surface, The Incurables is an indictment of blind faith, in religion or science. It’s an unflinching examination of the reality that people, by nature, must have something to believe in, to look to, in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other, especially in places like Burnwood where conditions are achingly hollow and stunted. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter if their chosen talisman, science or faith, fails them, because a new self-delusion is always waiting just around the corner to take the place of the fallen—meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Lurking just beneath the surface of The Incurables, however, is an equally scathing take on family, the ties that bind, and how that shapes us as people. Each of the main characters is dealing with, in fact driven by, a family member suffering from mental illness. Freeman’s wife has clearly been driven mad with grief over the untimely death of their son, and has piled alcoholism on top of that. And in a story he relays to the near-catatonic Edgar, it seems clear Freeman’s wife is not the first woman in his life who shaped him through her mental illness. In fact, Freeman’s entire immersion into the world of psychiatry has arguably been driven by the desire to help/cure the world as a penance for his inability to help/cure those closest to him.
Durango is similarly dealing with madness as a cornerstone of his existence, though in his father’s case it was guilt not grief that drove him over the edge into the abyss. And just as Freeman’s journey into psychiatry and the “miracle” of the transorbital lobotomy can be looked at as one of self-salvation, so too is Stanton’s crushing need for Durango to be the Messiah…and to absolve Stanton of his sins. Meanwhile, Baby’s slow and steady break from reality has left Scent in the position of having to both raise herself and to form a shell of armor around herself so thick it has distorted her view of everyone she comes into contact with and left her incapable of having a normal relationship—everyone is either a user or there to be used.
It’s not a pretty picture, and combined with the indictment of blind faith it makes for a rather oppressive atmosphere throughout. Make no mistake about it, The Incurables is the ultimate slow burn read. Bassoff layers the grief, despair and desperation on with a steady hand, exquisitely writing his characters into corners from which there is only one way out. And when he finally puts match to powder keg, the resulting thought-provoking, deeply disturbing explosion is one for the ages.
The Incurables is available from DarkFuse (ISBN: 978-1940544861).