This book review, written by Saleem Seyal, MD, FACC, FACP, appeared in Louisville Medicine in August, 2012.

Dr. Daly Walker is a native Hoosier and a retired surgeon who practiced General Surgery in Columbus, Indiana, for 35 years. He and his companion, artist Toni Wolcott, divide their time between Bean Blossom, Indiana, and Boca Grande, Florida.  He served as an Army battalion surgeon in Vietnam and received a Bronze Star.

Surgeon Stories is a work of fiction, composed of 10 riveting stories, beautifully packaged in a small, tight book. Eight of these stories have been published elsewhere, and the book represents literary work encompassing three decades. The book’s editor is Sena Jetter Naslund, a New York Times bestselling author and distinguished Louisvillian who teaches at the University of Louisville and Spalding University and is the founder/editor of Fleur-de-Lis Press in Louisville. The cover art is a reproduction of the famous painting of Theodor Billroth (considered to be the father of modern surgical thought) by Adalbert Franz Seligmann, depicting his operation at the Vienna General Hospital’s auditorium in the 1890s.

The first story, “I Am the Grass,” was first published in The Atlantic Monthly and is narrated by a Vietnam War veteran who is ashamed to tell his loving wife and daughter about the atrocities he committed as a grunt in enemy territory: the rape of a 13-year-old girl, aimlessly emptying his machine gun into two egrets, shoving two wounded Viet Cong out of the medevac chopper and gunning down a farmer in a ditch, decapitating him with a machete and hanging his head on a pole atop a mountain. “All of these things fester in me ... I cannot talk about these things that I wish I could forget but know that I never will,” he ruefully acknowledges. He survives, but there are no welcome mats for him on his return from Vietnam in the summer of 1968.  He spends two completely useless years in Chicago drifting from one meaningless endeavor to the next, smoking dope and dreaming dreams. Eventually, thanks to the GI Bill, he enrolls at a college and also works as a hospital orderly, which is extremely therapeutic and is his impetus to pursue medical education.  Fast-forward to his present status as a successful reconstructive plastic surgeon, albeit with a split personality: “I feel that I am two people at once, two people fighting within myself – one is a family man and physician – the other one is a war criminal with an atrophied soul.”

He heads back to Ho Chi Minh City for a two-week volunteer surgery stint to repair children’s cleft lips and palates. During the visit, he is tormented by the flashbacks of the horrific moments and the evil deeds of war. On seeing acres of elephant grass in Long Binh, the site of an old U.S. base, he ruminates about Carl Sandburg’s poem “Grass,” which deals with war and soldiers and grass: “And pile them high ... Shovel them under and let me work ... I am the grass; I cover all.” The trip serves as a cathartic exercise to exorcise the war demons, and he is gratified by his work helping children. He also ends up performing an unplanned operation on Dr. Dinh, the director of the hospital, who was thumbless because of torture by the South Vietnamese army.

The other nine stories are also beautifully crafted, immaculately precise and heartfelt. Dr. Walker tackles the life dramas of the characters in engaging prose sprinkled with poetic descriptions. “Widow’s Walk” involves a semi-retired physician who works in a clinic on an idyllic Florida island with amazing beaches and bursting-with-color sunsets. On one of the evenings,
he encounters a mature but very attractive lady strolling along the beach with her dog, which reminds him of Anton
Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” He is morose and desires companionship. He eventually strikes up a conversation with her, and the lady shows up in his clinic with her husband the next morning. Her husband is dying of metastatic cancer, has stopped chemotherapy and needs palliative management for incalcitrant pain. He is thoroughly professional, highly compassionate and a patient listener, prescribing liquid morphine for his cachectic patient. The husband dies peacefully in two days, and the narrator of the story stands with the widow, who is leaning against him watching the sun sinking below the horizon. Throughout the book there is immense tenderness and compassion along with honest and candid descriptions of the vagaries of practicing medicine. I highly recommend this beautiful collection of short stories and would like to see more of Dr. Walker’s writing.

Note: Dr. Seyal practices Cardiovascular Diseases with River Cities Cardiology. He thanks Karen Mann of the Brief Residency MFA in Writing program at Spalding University for introducing him to the book and giving him a copy.

Click here for copy from Louisville Medicine Magazine

This book review, written by Frederick Smock, appeared in the Louisville Courier Journal  on May 27, 2011

Daly WalkerI write to you with exciting news — here is a major talent, a short story writer who, in this debut collection, vaults into the first ranks.

I am tempted to compare Daly Walker to Tim O'Brien, for his soulful stories about the war in Vietnam, or to doctor-author Walker Percy, for his precise figuration of the human condition and his fine portrayals of doctors with patients.

Daly Walker is, in fact, a surgeon, now retired. He served in Vietnam as a battalion surgeon and earned a Bronze Star. A fellow of the American College of Surgery, he practiced for 35 years in Columbus, Ind. He has also studied creative writing at Indiana University and the University of Louisville. As well, he has studied with Sena Jeter Naslund, the founding director of the local Fleur-de-Lis press, housed at Spalding University, which specializes in publishing the first books of local authors.

Walker's scrupulous and unflinching attention to detail — in his story “I Am the Grass,” for example, which was first published in The Atlantic Monthly — calls to mind Tim O'Brien's marvelous stories in “The Things They Carried.” Walker's story begins:

“Because I love my wife and daughter and because I want them to believe I am a good man, I have never talked about my year as a grunt with the 25th Infantry in Vietnam.   … I cannot tell my wife who paints watercolors of song birds that on a search and destroy mission I emptied my M60 machine gun into two beautiful white egrets that were wading in the muddy water of a rice paddy. I cannot tell them how I sang ‘Happy Trails' as I shoved two wounded Viet Cong out the door of a medevac chopper hovering twenty feet above the tarmac. …”

I am most tempted, however, to say that Walker reminds me — and in a wholly original way — of James Salter, a writer's writer, whose short stories are spare and crisp and achingly beautiful. Like Salter, Walker's gesture are slight yet emphatic. His characters are quickly sketched yet endearing and memorable. He does a lot in few words. And he is subtle.

In his story “Widow's Walk,” a doctor living on the beach sees a fetching woman walking along with her dog at dusk, tossing it tennis balls in the surf. He strikes up a conversation, enticing her to linger with a story about the green flash just at sunset, but she begs off.

“I watched her as she moved away down the beach with the dog at her side. … I turned and looked out to sea. I watched the sun on its lonely descent, wondering, desiring. From a distance came the piercing cry of an osprey. Suddenly the orange orb dropped from sight. No green light flashed in the sky.”

No green light for him. It turns out that the woman is married, and her husband is suffering from terminal cancer. The good doctor ends up treating him, warmly and compassionately. When the husband dies, his ashes are sprinkled over the pass where the tarpon swim, where he had fished as a boy. The story ends with this lovely scene:

“We walked slowly to the water's edge. We stood in the sand with Lilly at Judy's feet. … As if searching for something lost at sea, we watched the sun sink below the horizon. The afterglow was a soft lavender that seemed more like daybreak than twilight. I put my arm around her, and she leaned against me. In the pass, tarpon were
rolling. Their great silver bodies arched, gleaming in the dying light.”

This is as pleasurable a book of short stories as I have read in years, in fact, since reading Salter's “Last Night.” Other stories from this collection have appeared in The Sewanee Review, The Louisville Review and The Southampton Review. Walker has also been short-listed for an O. Henry Award.

Frederick Smock teaches at Bellarmine University. His forthcoming book of poems is “The Deer at Gethsemani: Eclogues” (Accents Publishing.)

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