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Literary Medical Stories in Playboy

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There are a couple of interesting literary-meets-medical pieces in the February 2006 issue of Playboy. These two articles feature some heavy-duty literary power in Thom Jones and Michelle Richmond.

Thom Jones 

What first caught my eye (okay, really, the whole “reading the articles” and eye-catching jokes and all that are just too obvious so I’m playing this post straight) was Diary of My Health by Thom Jones.

Back when I was in graduate school, Thom Jones was the Man. With a strong emphasis on both THE and MAN. His debut story collection, The Pugilist at Rest: Stories was a finalist for the National Book Award and readers reacted much like the narrator in the title story:

He put me down almost immediately, and when I got up I was terribly afraid. I was tight and I could not breathe. It felt like he was hitting me in the face with a ball-peen hammer. It felt like he was busting light bulbs in my face. Rather than one opponent, I saw three. I was convinced his gloves were loaded, and a wave of self-pity ran through me.

Stories in the collection had been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s and others. In the next couple of years, Jones started appearing regularly in Playboy while continuing to publish those other venerable magazines. In 1995, his second collection Cold Snap: Stories was released and in 1999, he released Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine: Stories.

Reading Thom Jones’ stories always made me think of that line above, the one about light bulbs being smashed in my face. He was a hero of mine (and probably most every other young male) when I was working on a creative writing degree. One time, he signed copies of The Pugilist at Rest and Cold Snap for me, drawing self-portraits and putting jokes in both, and those books remain some of my treasured collection to this day.

But we never knew much about Mr. Jones. There were varied reports about all the dozens of health issues he faced. There was one rumor about a dustup he got into while signing at an inhospitable Barnes & Noble where a clerk actually tried to place him under citizen’s arrest. I have no idea if those legends are true or not, but they were all I knew about the man.

However, in the current issue of Playboy, Jones leaves his medical chart open for all the world to see. HIPPA compliance be damned, Jones records and publishes his daily health experiences in Diary of My Health: It’s Not Hypochondria if You’re Really Sick. A Journey Through One Man’s Incredible Aches and Pains.

Epileptic, diabetic, with high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and suffering from sleep apnea, and shitting through bouts of Crohn’s disease, Jones records his health travails from April 6 until February 5. It’s an amazing record of Job-like tribulations although it does reach the point of almost absurdity. Is all of this true? I don’t know. But if even half of his torture is true, then his fortitude is comparable with his fiction skill.

Michelle Richmond

A native of Mobile, AL, Michelle Richmond is the author of The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress: Stories and the novel Dream Of The Blue Room. In addition to Playboy, her work has appeared in Glimmertrain and the Mid-American Review among many other outlets. She received an MFA from the University of Miami and she teaches in the creative writing program at California College of the Arts. For the spring of 2006, she is serving as the Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at St. Mary’s College of Moraga, California.

In the current Playboy, Richmond has the featured short story with her piece, An Exciting New Career in Medicine. In Richmond’s fictional world (although it’s not far off from the place you and I inhabit),

The licenses are 100 percent official and distributed by the health department. Prescription drugs are expensive these days, the Canadian border has been closed, progressive health departs are rapidly moving toward a concept of nurture over narcotics. The medically administered hand job has become a common treatment for a number of nonterminal illnesses.

Richmond’s narrator in this interesting story is a grieving woman, mourning her deceased sister while trying to find a job more fulfilling than her copywriting gig. So she ardently studies for her exam to become a fully licensed, professional hand job giver. Or, as they prefer to be known, a Manual Medical Caregiver.

The story is intriguing and I certainly recommend checking out Richmond’s work. Her website gives more information about her future projects.

Is There a Doctor on Staff?

Maybe it’s just a coincidence and this certainly isn’t intended to be a criticism of Richmond’s story. But while I was reading it, something about the medical administration of “hand jobs” seemed familiar. So I checked back through some things and remembered the connection. In the May 2005 issue, Playboy published Chuck Palahniuk’s short story Footwork. In this piece, the main character goes to massage school to and learns that “a good reflexologist might be lured away to the dark side. To work just certain pleasure centers on the sole of the foot. To give what people only whispered and giggled about–‘foot jobs.'”

Two stories, two unusual portrayals of medical treatments, in about a ten month period of time. The stories are even illustrated by the same person, Istvan Banyai. And let me be clear, I’m not suggesting anything inappropriate. I don’t want to start some Brad Vice shitstorm. Michelle Richmond’s work is polished, unusual, individual and stands on its own. I only mention all this because one of the things that we, as aspiring authors, should strive to do is recognize the individual tastes and habits of editors. The literary editor spot at the magazine is currently occupied by Amy Grace Lloyd but the chair was empty when Palahniuk’s story was published in May. Even still, maybe there’s a medical fetish lurking somewhere on the masthead.

How about a kinky chiropractor? Maybe a weird dentist? Throw some unusual medical applications into your plots and maybe you’ll get a chance at Mr. Hefner’s magazine.