By Michael Downs
Acre Books, 2018
There is great sympathetic tragedy in unrecognized greatness, perhaps because we all know, quietly and bitterly, that our true selves and accomplishments are doomed, often through our own foolishness, to oblivion. Nineteenth-century dentist extraordinaire and proto-anesthesiologist Horace Wells, as portrayed by Michael Downs in The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist, was so doomed. His accomplishments were unappreciated in his lifetime; his laborious, self-destructive, and martyr-like preoccupation with ending physical pain was never fully known, even by those closest to him; and his life was finally, inevitably, overwhelmed with the vicissitudes of being and the addictions that make being transiently bearable.
Downs mentions in his acknowledgements that the novel is, quite obviously, fiction and not history. More to the point, it is not typical historical fiction. Although pigs wander the muddy streets and public displays of non-standard behavior possess a shaming power they no longer hold in the 21st century, the novel doesn’t linger in minute historical detail, doesn’t set up a painstakingly living image of a former time. Instead, it relies on strong poetic, impressionistic strokes that ground the reader in a dreamlike historical setting that always remains vague enough to seem timeless, allowing Horace Wells to rise above the page and his own time and to stare out with haunted eyes.
This is the principal success of the novel, that Wells, complex and as relatable as he is pathetic, never recedes into history or its recreation. Pain, after all, is eternal, and for Wells, pain is always immediate, from the desperate trauma of his childhood—when he learned, sadly, to always stare “with a boy’s fascination for what’s fouled”—to his patients that react with exquisite pain beneath his dentist’s key, to his own failures and his final end, which, along with the last quarter of the novel, dissipates like mist so that nothing is left but pain and the ironic futility of avoiding it in an almost “Bartleby the Scrivener”-like manner.
What makes Wells an interesting and ultimately tragic character, rather than merely an entry in a medical hagiography, is that his focus on pain other than his own is specifically and wholly physical, which he observes with a sadist’s eye for detail and a masochist’s emotional intensity. (And a warning might be due here: Downs describes the pain Wells witnesses with such flair that the reader will wince as though the screaming girl or howling dog or wide-eyed horse is present in the same room and will sigh and slip into numbed darkness along with Wells himself). Psychic pain, emotional pain other than his own, which he cradles like a dead child, gets little attention from Wells, including the profound grief and pain of his wife Elizabeth, who stands behind Wells as the true victim—his true victim—in the novel. She suffers imposed celibacy for years because of Wells’ dainty feelings; she suffers shame and poverty because of his failures; she suffers a laming grief because of his constant absence and his infidelities; and she suffers all the more because, unlike her husband, she loves selflessly and doesn’t hide from pain which is, after all, ultimately and always victorious.
So it is then that Downs’ Horace Wells, obsessed with victory over physical pain and his own wincing neuroses, is not the simple and selfless prince of unrecognized greatness he seems to be at first glance. He is only a man trapped, like so many of us, in the amber of childhood trauma, which in turn traps others; a man who sought relief from his own pain by, wonderfully but incidentally, erasing the physical pain of others. Wells was, of course, unable to truly accomplish either, and Downs, with language that is always pleasant to read even as it occasionally piles upon itself into a heap, even as the center of the novel—the heroic and often futile human endeavor of fighting against our own physicality—sometimes wobbles, admirably charts Wells’ descent into drugged and alienating self-pity and belated success, and were it somehow able to be read by Wells, and by Elizabeth, it might, in its kind sympathy for them, soften some of their pains. For everyone else, the novel is worth reading for its poetry, its structure that floats and fades and reforms and dissolves, and for its willingness to allow realism and ambiguity of character, as much a part of life as pain, to discomfort its readers and, by so doing, make life a little sharper, a little fuller.
 An excellent historical companion to this novel is Noble Obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the 19th Century. Goodyear, inventor of vulcanized rubber, was another man who suffered the pain of nonrecognition.