This is a story of a day in the life of 12-year-old Albert Abrams in Brownsville, Brooklyn, during the Depression summer of 1934. Albert’s father is an irascible middle-aged general practitioner whose practice is getting smaller and smaller. Most of his patients can’t pay; and many have left Dr. Abrams to go to younger doctors, or to specialists. Albert’s mother is a refined literary-type lady who never complains about their life in the deteriorating neighborhood, even though all of their middle-class friends have moved elsewhere.

Albert is a brilliant young man ("the highest IQ in the school"), but his greatest desire is to be "one of the boys." He is small, skinny, and poor at sports. The other kids make fun of him because of his "rich" father. The novel describes a long day of verbal and physical harassment; its highlights are a critical punchball game between the white kids, mostly Jewish, and black kids of Longview Avenue, and a fistfight in which Albert actually "beats" one of his perennial nemeses. In the evening there is a fire in which Yussel Melnick, an old Talmudic scholar, is burned to death.

Peeking out from behind his son’s story is the image of Dr. Abrams, a man who once was the star of his medical school class, but whose career long ago failed to "take off" because of his bluntness, bad-temper, and general difficulty getting along with other professionals. He is portrayed as a man truly committed to his patients, but also prone to yelling at them and hounding them for payment. As the day progresses, it becomes evident that Dr. Abrams has been losing his grip; he has episodes of confusion and appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In the end, stimulated by love for his son, he rouses himself from suicidal ruminations.


We tend to paint a rosy picture of the good old days in medicine when doctors were altruistic and compassionate, and patients were loyal and grateful. For example, Arthur Hertzler’s The Horse and Buggy Doctor presents a mid-American small town version of this image [see annotation in this database]. When we complain about the loss of professionalism in medicine, we imagine--unrealistically--a uniformly higher standard of professionalism in the past. Finally, we look upon professional burnout as a modern malady, to which the docs of the halcyon past were somehow immune.

Dr. Abrams provides an excellent antidote for this type of thinking. His outspokenness and lack of "people" skills have compromised his career, and the added stresses of the Depression and the growing tendency of his old patients to abandon him for the new fangled specialists (even for chiropractors!) have tipped him into a precarious state of health, perhaps a mixture of clinical depression and professional burnout.

The novel’s take home message is too simplistic (i.e. Doc Abrams rallies because of love for his son and commitment to his patients, and he continues to practice for several more years). But the image of Abrams, who alienates the patients he serves because he is unable to break out of the shell of his personality, is wonderfully complex.



Place Published

New York



Page Count