"Pretend All Your Life" by Joseph L. Mackin

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Where to start with the themes, symbols, and moral stance in this magnificent little novel? Richard Gallin, M.D., plastic surgeon, collector and alterer of masks, promiser of a better life, vain aspirer to honor, has lost his son in the 9/11 bombings. It’s obviously impossible to tell; there are no survivors, are there?

At the novel’s outset, Dr. Gallin, in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers, seems unable to get back on track – his relationship is deteriorating because of his own boorishness, his practice is sinking, his assets erode as his debts mount. He’s also being hounded by a second-rate journalist who is trying to avenge his lover’s firing by Dr. Gallin because the lover, a surgical nurse, had contracted HIV. He meets an art dealer/appraiser who greatly admires his collection of African tribal masks, and who agrees to find a buyer for them. Apparently she also greatly admires Dr. Gallin; and that same night the flabbergasting, miraculous appearance of a new character triggers a series of events and consequences that spiral beyond control.
This tight-knit, closed-within-itself piece brims over with moral questions – or perhaps has a single answer to all our ethical quandaries: you may think you know the answer, but chances are you don’t, and even if you did, there is no way to ensure an act is right, anyway. Dr. Gallin felt he had no alternative but to dismiss the surgical nurse on his staff because the man had contracted HIV. The man’s lover, an unhappy aspiring novelist, attempts to extort money – on ethical grounds – from Dr. Gallin to avenge the firing. Dr. Gallin is mugged and stabbed, only to be rescued by a local immigrant tough, to whom the doctor makes the promise of a new appearance and a renewed chance at life once he does the doctor’s dirty work on the extortionist.

Life and death flow through and around our protagonist. An extremely memorable fictional invention, Dr. Gallin struggles in the end to find the right way, to give of himself so that others may live a better life. Mostly. The motif of the masks is brilliant, and when you ally it with the unfinished sculpture by the doctor’s widowed daughter-in-law, it reverberates with added meaning. The characters’ personal internal processes convince and compel, they lift us up and take us along, as we feel the pain and doubt. The book relies slightly too much on coincidence, but we forgive this completely, for the sharp physical focus, and the contemplative rewards we get along the way.

My congratulations to Mr. Mackin. I recommend this unreservedly. How is it that a debut piece can be so polished, deep, and effective?
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