In 1844, Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist, encountered nitrous oxide, or laughing gas--then an entertainment for performers in carnival-like theatrical acts--and began administering the gas as the first true anesthetic. His discovery would change the world, reshaping medicine and humanity's relationship with pain.
Michael Downs spins the sad facts of Wells’s life into a gloomy, hypnotic story in his debut novel, The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist ... the power of Downs’s storytelling lies in giving us glimpses of the man Horace might have been if pain, 'that slippery thing,' hadn’t cast a spell on his soul ... In any case, Downs tells a fascinating story in skilled, often elegant prose, and he treats all his characters with great sympathy.
As a work of historical fiction, the book works very well, capturing the gritty life lived in mid-19th century America. It was a different world then, though the very human ways we tend to brutalize and betray one another are easily recognizable today. It is a love story, ultimately, though only of a sort. There isn’t an abundance of sweetness or happiness to be found between the covers. Nor should there be, given the nature of the story.
Downs succeeds in crafting a fast-paced narrative full of humor, vivid description, and lively characters. A few too many tangents and point-of-view shifts make it a more arduous journey than it might have been.