Stephen Bergman is a writer and Harvard Medical School professor who, under the pen name Samuel Shem, had huge best-seller success in the 1970s with his medical novel The House of God. The book was a precursor to TV series like ER and today's House; and while it wasn't the first book to dramatize the human element in high-stakes medical care, it did a particularly rich and distinguished job. In an introduction to a re-issued version of the book, John Updike said that "it does for medical training what Catch-22 did for the military life-displays it as farce, a melee of blunderers laboring to murky purpose under corrupt and platitudinous superiors." Bergman/Shem wrote the later, popular medical novels Mount Misery and Fine.

Now he has written a very different book, The Spirit of the Place, which I have recently finished and expect to remember for a long time.


Two of this book's central characters are also doctors, but the novel is less about their professions than the whole of their lives as people: children, parents, siblings, citizens. The book particularly struck a chord with me because one of its themes is whether talented people can decide to devote their lives to the betterment of little, self-contained communities: a topic on my mind because of the recent death of my parents, who had done just that. But even without that stake, I think I would have recognized this as a rich depiction of the world we now inhabit. Bergman, who is younger than John Updike, was apparently a good friend of his, spending many hours with him on the golf course. This is an Updike-worthy humorous, raunchy, vivid depiction of American life.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to