Kevin Barry - Doctor Sot
From the bakery counter he picked up a chocolate cake for his wife, Sal, who was the happiest woman alive.
Our Doctor Sot – well, his name is Carl O'Connor, but nobody calls him that any more – is a lush, drunk from morning until evening, his patients dwindling as they age and die, or leave for other, better doctors, but he's happy, or seems to be, at least when the headaches aren't there. Doctor Sot is a pleasant enough fellow, more harm to himself than anybody else and his wife, as may have been noticed above, is deliriously happy, perhaps because she hasn't the wit to notice her husband's dissolution.
Kevin Barry's short story, Doctor Sot, is clever and humorous, eschewing the potential drama or melancholy of the drunkard for the merriness of the functional alcoholic. There are (many) signs that Doctor Sot is close to slipping from the functional to the defunct – he has begun urinating his pants, he regularly crashes his car, he regularly wakes up in odd places and, of course, he has been nicknamed “Doctor Sot” - but he's not quite there yet. One suspects that Doctor Sot is the slice of his life immediately before this occurs, that the bottom of this particular phase in his life is at an end, and now there's a whole new layer of alcoholism to explore.
His surgery ran from noon until two. It was as slow as it always was now. Only the old and fatalistic still patronised the O'Connor practice. The lady of the Knotts whose twin had died in the winter was in about the voices again but the voices had turned benevolent and she was less disturbed than she had been. Ellie Troy had that grey, heartsick look but she was seventy-two now and she'd had the grey, heartsick look since she was forty: it was a slow death for poor Ellie. It was the weather for sore throats, Doctor Sot told Bird Magahy. His own headaches weren't so bad during surgery and he was careful not to gaze out toward the sky.
Doctor Sot's wife Sal clearly enables him as a drinker. She doesn't ask questions and is instead happy to make a lunch she knows he won't eat – though he'll drink the beer she serves alongside the sandwich – and she is supportive of her husband's hare-brained ideas. She buries herself in genre fiction and is cheerful, cheerful, cheerful. Doctor Sot reflects throughout the day how wonderful she is, and he's right, because she become a willing participant in his ongoing incapacity to admit he has a problem. They are both living in ignorance and, at the time of the story, bliss, but it's not a happy union in truth, and it's no accident Doctor Sot spends many of his nights somewhere else, oblivious from drink.
Barry's story follows Doctor Sot from the beginning of the day until the end. We stay firmly within his perspective, which means the people and situations are coloured by Sot's perspective. He's honest enough with himself to recognise the failings of his life and from where his problems stem, but he hasn't quite admitted the extent of his problems. He thus spends half the story thinking about the ways the people in the village have abandoned him and the other half about drinking, being merry, and ensuring that everything continues along exactly as it is.
The Doctor comes undone when he goes to visit some “hippies”. At first he dislikes them, but then the alcohol comes out and he realises they aren't so bad. The problem with severe alcoholism is that, after a few drinks, anyone can be your friend as long as they are buying or providing or even just willing to sit with you. To Barry's credit the “hippies” don't take advantage of him, and nor do they assist in providing any kind of alternative answer to Doctor Sot's problems, but they do help function as a mirror from which Doctor Sot's true reflection can be seen. The ordinary villagers of his town, however much they may dislike his drinking, accept it, and, as is often the case in tiny towns, his way of being has become a part of the make-up of the community. He's neither bad or good to them but Doctor Sot – it's his position, status and his worth. Because of this, Doctor Sot has never needed to truly face how he is as he knows he will remain accepted no matter what. But the hippies come from outside this ecosystem, and in their faces and their eyes Doctor Sot can see himself, how he appears to new people. It's important to stress that Barry does not turn this situation into an epiphany-styled ending; instead, Doctor Sot becomes more himself, able to relieve himself of the burden of being a lush while pretending to be a doctor. Now he can just be a drunk, now he can be true to himself. Barry's handling of Doctor Sot's discovery about himself is adept and touching, for all that it's the story of a man coming to terms with his own ruin and failure. And it's funny, too, in that bleakly Irish way of laughing at one's own misery.
Doctor Sot by Kevin Barry is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
---United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen - The Professionals
---United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary - The Heart Fails Without Warning
---Turkish: Üldes, Ersan - Professional Behaviour
---Swiss: Stefan, Verena - Doe a Deer
---Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé - Nela and the Virgins
---Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique - Far From Here
---Slovenian: Jančar, Drago - The Prophecy
---Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir - One Minute: Dumbo's Death
---Russian: Gelasimov, Andre - The Evil Eye
---Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Goose Chase
---Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. - Six Tales
---Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga - The Ugliest Woman in the World
---Norwegian: Grytten, Frode - Hotel by a Railroad
---Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon - Desire
---Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen - Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
---Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian - Auntie Frosea
---Macedonian: Minevski, Blaže - Academician Sisoye's Inaugural Speech
---Lithuanian: Kalinauskaitė, Danutė - Just Things
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review
David J Single