“Intriguing Inevitability”: A Review of The Cuts that Cure by Arthur Herbert
(White Bird Publications, 2021). ISBN: 978-1-63363-512-8
Authors, publishers, story analysts, reviewers, and readers often speak about a book being a “real page-turner.” Rarely do we elaborate on what that means. To me, having decades of experience in these areas, it’s about two things: (1) posing and answering Big Questions (without doing so too quickly), and immediately posing (and answering) new ones and (2) taking full advantage of the human mind’s tendency to think in terms of inevitability.
In the case of Arthur Herbert’s page-turner (I got up early or stayed up late most days while reading it), The Cuts that Cure, the inevitabilities lie in the trajectories of the individual characters (based on their considerable flaws) and on how masterfully Herbert keeps storylines separate and motivations secret for so long. That’s precisely how the posing and answering of Big Questions also serve to keep the reader engaged.
The opening scene finds the protagonist, Dr. Alex Brantley, “deep in the weeds,” in writer’s parlance. A highly skilled surgeon, he works exhausting hours, is up to his eyeballs in college loans, and is navigating the destruction of his marriage. After saving a life that a less skilled surgeon might have lost, Alex wants nothing more than to go home and hang up his doctor’s coat. Fate, however, intervenes. He is summoned to attend to a child who is the victim of obvious and brutal parental abuse. Understandably (and our understanding of how good people can do less than good things is key in this novel), Alex loses control, which serves as the inciting incident, leading him to the position of “stranger in a strange land” or taking the first step in the Hero’s Journey—Separation.
I’m more technical in this review because the author is a master craftsman. All of the reasons why these writing techniques are standard—and have been for hundreds if not thousands of years—is because, in the right hands, applied correctly, they work.
Alex, finished with medicine, takes a job teaching science at a small-town high school in Texas after an aborted suicide attempt in a dingy motel. His move and new life are step two of the Hero’s Journey—Initiation.
Through the impressive detail of his initial surgery, the encounter with the abused child, and the suicide attempt, it is clear that the author has considerable knowledge about medicine. Reading on, Herbert also demonstrates deep knowledge in other crucial areas as well.
Parallel to Alex’s story is that of a troubled high schooler named Henry, given to darkness and violence. It’s through these two stories that Herbert creates the Inevitability I mentioned earlier. Not only does he take his time to build tension—the outcomes weren’t what I thought they’d be.
As Alex builds a new life in the small town—which, like Stephen King’s Castle Rock and other literary small towns—offers up rich characters and intrigues—he becomes friends with a well-to-do and perhaps overly friendly lawyer whose hidden intentions are another aspect of the Inevitability and Big Questions that drive this accomplished thriller. In terms of authors paying IOUs, the hints about the lawyer’s and other characters’ true motivations are implanted all throughout the novel, expertly hidden by action.
Alex, despite best efforts—and he tries extremely hard—finds himself, in the Age of the Internet, the target of false assumptions, thin facts, and ample gossip that keep him ever the Outsider, the Stranger in a Strange Land, ever on edge.
Trips across the border into small, dangerous towns in Mexico and the presence of powerful criminals add to the action and the drama. A night at a strip club in Nuevo Laredo has a tone and tension reminiscent of Tarantino’s From Dusk till Dawn.
Speaking of tone, The Cuts that Cure opens with a quote from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and this Texas/Mexico border–based novel does read at times like a dark western, calling to mind the almost Gothic overtones of Cormac McCarthy.
It’s always a win when an author can make a morally questionable character into, if not a hero, than at least someone with whom we empathize and at times root for. Alex’s crushing debt is the catalyst for those feelings, as he meets periodically with his bankruptcy attorney and faces the dire prospect of a forced return to medicine in order to pay his college loans.
Henry’s descent, in parallel with Alex’s resistance of his own dark impulses, opens the door to police procedural elements, when a tenacious detective uses modern technology and old-fashioned, tried and true bloodhound investigation techniques to expose Henry’s evil deeds. Their confrontation in the woods is a standout scene in a book with many memorable ones.
Not to give short shrift to female characters, Henry’s mother Rebecca takes the lead amongst a group of women from a wide array of socioeconomic statuses, from strippers to white-collar professionals. Rebecca is the Act Three catalyst, serving to raise important questions about parental culpability in their children’s violent acts and what extremes some will go to when faced with the choice between Responsibility and Denial.
As I navigated the high stakes of Act Three, where all the storylines came together, Alex was faced with his own versions of every question posed for each of the supporting characters. I’d come to know him well. If I was not fully cheering for him to overcome his obstacles—several of which he clearly created—I was outraged enough by what was happening to him and intrigued enough by a proposition posed to him that would solve all of his mounting problems in a single action that, no matter how dark and grim it got, I was hoping he’d get the win.
I mentioned that the ending was a surprise. The third step on the Hero’s Journey—Return—was not what I had anticipated. Kudos to Herbert for taking a road less traveled. A road that takes us back to pre-Prologue Alex—an idea or more accurately, echo, of why he first became a doctor, and the stuff of which this complex anti-hero is made.
I hope this is not the last we have heard from Arthur Herbert. There is true talent here.