By Harold Goldberg
It’s a deep flaw game writers have and it’s a flaw that I have, too. Game journalists don’t really take the time to write about books, certainly not nearly enough. Sure, occasionally a non-fiction tome will incite lemmings in search of hits to outdo each other with praise. But when it comes to fiction with a game plot or literary subplot, critics generally avoid it (unless it’s “Ready Player One”). To them, it’s not even worthy of a roundup.
A book of poetry about cancer from one of the team members at Rockstar Games? No one’s going to touch that, right? Yet you should read it because “The Doctor Series” by Sean Flaherty is a searing, touching document about what it’s like to have cancer and live the best life you can as you look toward dying.
At times, it’s a difficult book to read, this series of poems which was written in eight days, two weeks before the author’s death. But like a Rockstar game, there’s humor here, and incisive, concise comments about our gritty human condition, too. These 96 prose poems begin with the realization that death may be near. The words, sometimes depressing because they’re so real, keep you intrigued because Flaherty not only has a keen eye for the smallest detail. It’s in these details that he explains and confronts his flaws, his guilt, his fear, his love, his end. The words are not just his voice; they’re his personality, his spirit, his very person.
Pop culture resonates throughout. Here, the doctor is like James Bond. There, Flaherty is like an action hero or feels like he’s in a horror film. Elsewhere, he runs like a panicked superhero once told his days are numbered; he wants to fit a life, all of life, into the next few moments,
past windows filled with
want, want, want, want,
I want, I want
to steal all the jewelry,
I want to have sex
with everyone I see,
smashing through the glass:
Midway through, that changes. A friend takes the poet out for what the friend must think will be last, memorable night of wildness. There’s cocaine. There’s prostitutes. Flaherty doesn’t want to even be touched by a woman he doesn’t know. It doesn’t make sense to waste his energy in that way. There’s a sadness here, but a heroism, too, a quiet, steady-headed rebellion that turns away from temporary highs.
The way Flaherty describes his battle with cancer drugs can be gut-tightening. Often, one word will take up a full line, like the very way he communicates will end soon, so each word deserves its own moment in the limelight. There’s vomiting, crapping, tumors, and the out-of-your mind free form, free floating from a mix of pain drugs and pot. He uses metaphors from movies and high action verbs to describe the mess in his mind and in his world. The news of politics, murder and religion don’t appear much in his verse. They’re too temporal.
Flaherty talks about those closest to him, how he’s frightened to leave them, how he’s almost a ghost now. Then, there’s yearning loneliness of dying when a doctor or a nurse never says the right thing. But in a way, how could they? Cancer is ultimately something you have to sort out for yourself. The nuclear family can help. Maybe your parents. But you’re mainly in it with your thoughts, and when those thoughts concentrate on the smallest happiness like a hot bath, the reader feels moved. It’s through his poetry that Flaherty tries to figure out the infinite depths of mortality. While death ultimately succeeds, the real triumph is what’s left behind, what’s left for others to pore over – so they, too, can understand, so they can commiserate, and so they can still love, well, something that has little to do with another human being.
Journalist/author Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and the New York Game Awards. Twitter: @haroldgoldberg