Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021
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A med school fable

In The Parabolist, Dr Nicholas Ruddock carves out a tale of sex, murder... and poetry

When poet Roberto Moreno arrives in Toronto from Mexico City in 1975, he has no idea what the city has in store for him.

Valerie is extraordinarily beautiful, Jasper's a womanizer, Wallace a plodder and Jon a drop-out. Each, in their way, is in love with poetry and at least half in love with Moreno — and they're all medical students.

For his part, Moreno, the parabolist, inspires and shows by example how to live and write on the edge. Much of the action — and there's lots of it — takes place over a sweltering Toronto summer while Valerie and Jasper reduce a cadaver to its constituent parts.

Author Nicholas Ruddock — a family physician from Guelph, Ontario — writes of what he knows and he writes well. U of T's Hart House and nearby neighbourhoods where students live and love and struggle, now as then, come off as vividly as the human characters. The reader feels a nostalgia for the uncertain city as it was before it grew up and took on its present pretensions.

The book is composed of a series of episodes, seldom more that 500 words long. A lesser author might have left the reader scrambling back through pages and memory to piece the story together. That doesn't happen here, several plots are woven together to become all of a piece.

The frenetic lives of the characters convey the rushed exhaustion of medical school. Did Ruddock choose to write the book in short bursts because he never had more than a stolen hour or two, here and there, at his desk?

No matter, he pulls it off. The sex, murder, thievery, poetry and longings are all caught up in a skillfully woven net. The poetry is worth a mention in itself. Canadian poets of the time from P.K. Page to Earle Birney, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton and many others get a mention and the snippets of poetry sprinkled here and there are a treat.

The first issue of Zipper which Valerie and poet Amber White produce with help from the Canada Council is entirely given over to Amber's poem "By Church and Isabella I Sat Down and Wept." It begins:

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The poetry and the book are a rollicking ride. The pages roll by quickly and too soon you realize the end — and a little let down — is near.

The Parabolist, Doubleday, 2009. $29.95 at

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