During the summer of 1989 I worked with at-risk youth in Bristol, Virginia, a town that bordered Tennessee.
On the Tennessee side stood a replica of the Dukes of Hazzard’s General Lee car-a red Dodge Charger with a confederate flag sprayed across it.
The work was memorable and tough.
The kids included Mike Lewis, a mixed race, muscular young man who lived in a group home and repeatedly asked Jim Perkins, the teacher, if he had ever killed anyone.
“That ain’t right, son,” Jim would say. “You’re sick.”
He was probably right.
On the first day of work, Mike broke a turtle’s neck and declared, “I never saw a turtle commit suicide before.”
The work exhausted me, so often after the school and field portions of the day were completed, I would go to work out at a local gym. The DJ on the radio station would often declare that he was “rocking the universe for the Tri-City area.”
In addition to Bristol, Johnson City was one of the two other towns.
I never made it to Johnson City, but Abraham Verghese did. The Ethiopian born Verghese, whose family orginally hailed from India, spent most of the mid- to late-80s there as a doctor in the early years of the AIDS epidemic working to combat the virus’ deadly effects as well as the stigma around the disease.
My Own Country is the book he wrote based on his experiences.
I have not yet finished it, but did not want to wait to write about it.
Verghese writes in clear and vivid detail about the disease, about his new marriage and burgeoning family, and about his status as as outsider being given access to people’s reckoning with a disease that guaranteed their deaths and, in many cases, pariah status.
The result is compelling reading. Verghese shows the strain his work has no his family and on his pscyhe-in those days, learning that you had the virus was a virtual death sentence-and creates heartbreaking portraits of a town slowly coming to grips with a scourge that previously seemed to be the exclusive province of Hollywood and stars like Rock Hudson.
I may write more about this work after I finish it, and I hope that you don’t wait until then to consider taking a look at this notable book.