‘Death and the Intern’ by Jeremy Hanson-Finger

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Dan Twerdochlib

Drugs and money seem to run the hospital where Janwar Gupta is doing his practicum. In Death and the Intern, an anesthesiologist-in-training is framed for manslaughter. Convinced that he was set up, Janwar plays amateur detective and stumbles upon corruption in Ottawa’s Civic Hospital as he tries to uncover who wanted his patient dead and why. Janwar’s anxiety and neuroses provide comic relief as he works to clear his name, navigating interdepartmental politics and romantic entanglements far from his overbearing parents in British-Columbia.

Jeremy Hanson-Finger’s new work is clever and engaging. Janwar’s aptitude as a sleuth is supported by witty observations, while comprehensive run-throughs of his thought processes are relatable for anyone who grapples with anxiety or social awkwardness. Janwar is endearing, plagued with human flaws in spite of his academic successes and medical proficiency. His supporting cast is fleshed out enough to be identifiable while remaining inscrutable enough to leave both Janwar and the reader unsure who can be trusted.

Death and the Intern is Hanson-Finger’s first novel, but he has a long list of publishing credits under his belt, both fiction and non-fiction. In an essay for The Puritan, Hanson-Finger weighs in on what he calls the “Muffin Top” narrative, which suggests that MFA programs function primarily to standardize the cultural production of their graduates rather than nurturing their individual talents and creativity. He writes, “The Muffin Tops believe the workshop model of creative writing institutions turns unique voices into Raymond Carver knock-offs, indistinguishable producers of realist fiction.”

The writing-as-art versus writing-as-craft debate is a tired one. On the one side, you have those writers with an artist’s temperament who vociferously refuse to compromise their vision. On the other, you have writers for whom it’s more important to reach an audience and will do what it takes to render the writing accessible.

Balancing what you think is right with the opinions of teachers, colleagues and even readers is a struggle for every writer. Reading Death and the Intern, it becomes apparent that Hanson-Finger’s dismissal of the Muffin Top narrative is not an endorsement of Carver’s writing style, but rather a nihilistic reminder that writers are free to write what they want. No style is right or wrong; there is only your work’s ensuing marketability. With that in mind, Death and the Intern eschews Carver’s minimalism in favour of a more expansive approach. Contrary to Faulkner’s famous advice, all darlings are spared with mixed results. Although most of the novel’s tangents serve to develop character, there are passages that do little more than express Janwar’s opinions and observations without carrying the necessary functional weight. Take this passage for example:

The newspaper is full of ads for the football team playing in Lansdowne Stadium, by Dr. Flecktarn’s condo. They’re called the Ottawa Redblacks, which Janwar can’t help feeling uneasy about. Sure, it’s not technically racist. But the name seems like it’s purposely pushing the boundaries of political correctness. “The Nepean Redskins had to give up their name? Fuck bleeding hearts. Let’s denigrate two minorities at once,” Janwar imagines the owner saying to his business associates.

Tangential observations of popular culture can have the capacity to add character depth or enhance motifs. Arguably, such tangents have worked for Quentin Tarantino. Mr. Pink’s stance on tipping in Reservoir Dogs, or Jules’ discussion of the McRoyale with cheese in Pulp Fiction come to mind. However, observations like the one above aren’t discussed with other characters.

As Janwar’s romantic interest is a journalist, I’m reminded here of what is referred to in the trade as a cliff-dive story. After the most pertinent stories have been laid out, newspaper editors will include stories about buses veering off cliffs to fill empty space on the back pages. Usually, these events take place in South-American countries and involve multiple fatalities. Alarmingly, these accidents are much more common than you might think. Though interesting, these events are never followed up on because their function in the paper is simply to be read and forgotten on slow news days. I won’t weigh in on the wider moral implications of including or omitting such stories. I will however suggest that for news stories—or passages like the one above—to become poignant, they require more than just inclusion, but proper placement and development.

The above passage is only tenuously tied to the world of the novel by way of motif or character development. It seems to come instead from from the world of the author, which makes it feel awkwardly tacked on at the behest of the author and not the story. These rare occasions where Janwar serves as little more than the author’s mouthpiece are mildly disruptive, but there are only a few such moments in the novel.

When Hansen-Finger takes his time, he writes Janwar’s feelings of distress—isolation, longing, angst—with clarity and airiness that keeps the novel fun and light. The title, reminiscent of classic pulp noir, combined with the bright colours on the cover provide a reliable clue what to expect. Hanson-Finger enhances a gritty downtown Ottawa that remains both true to the place while staying true to the genre.

The story’s humour has the capacity to make you smile to the same extent that Janwar’s puns will make you groan. By and large, Death and the Intern works. It works as genre fiction but it also works as pastiche. It’s a page-turning crime novel with a shot of dark comedy and enough medical jargon to keep things interesting without bogging down the narrative flow. A successful first novel from Jeremy Hanson-Finger and great summer beach read.

Invisible Publishing | 272 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1926743912

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Dan Twerdochlib

Dan Twerdochlib writes reviews, haiku and short fiction. He lives and works in Winnipeg, Manitoba.