The good doctor

Review by Bob Muggleston

“Go By Boat: Stories of a Maine Island Doctor”
by Dr. Chuck Radis. Down East Books, 2021. 185 pp. $24.95.

In the 1991 movie “Doc Hollywood,” city slicker Ben Stone (played by Michael J. Fox), who has just completed his medical residency, crashes his Porsche trying to avoid a cow in the backwater of Grady, South Carolina, knocking down a fence. As punishment he’s sentenced to 32 hours of community service at the local health clinic. Eccentrics and simple country folk populate the town, and while Ben initially finds their entreaties bizarre and distasteful, he soon falls in love with them and decides to stay. Cue the happy ending.

I thought of this movie a lot while reading “Go By Boat: Stories of a Maine Island Doctor,” the chief similarity being that they’re both doctor-related comedies with a serious heart. But whereas Dr. Stone is essentially shanghaied, Dr. Chuck Radis has lobbied hard to practice his own unique version of country medicine. When we meet him, Dr. Radis is an osteopathic family physician based in Portland, Maine, who needs to fulfill a Public Health scholarship obligation. After learning that the year-round island communities of Casco Bay are underserved – for medical issues they have to take a ferry, or the town’s fireboat, to Portland – he bands the residents of the islands together and gets them qualified as a “health manpower-shortage area.” Voila.

He and his young family move to the biggest island in Casco Bay – Peaks Island, 720 acres – and is immediately thrust into a world of stubborn Mainers who, for the most part, avoid Portland like the plague. Dr. Radis has few modern diagnostic tools beyond a tackle box of simple supplies. Soon two characters – Bud Perry, and Ricky Hogan – emerge in the narrative, and are then followed closely throughout the book. Bud is an old Swamp Yankee with myriad problems whose specialty is being a pain in the butt, while the teenaged Ricky (his character is a fictional amalgamation of several patients) represents the dark side of human nature at work everywhere – even on a relatively serene island in Maine.

The book often feels like a return to simpler times and values, which was especially refreshing given the current state of the world. While it is quite serious at times – because doctors, after all, deal with life and death – the book is also one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. The residents of Peaks Island can’t help making this so:

The Island Romance idled down as it approached Long Island. A dozen or so lobster boats bobbed on their moorings. (No lobstering is permitted in Maine on Sundays during the summer months). A stooped elderly man limped to the edge of the wharf and shouted, “Where’s my goddamn tombstone?”

The word came down from the pilothouse. “Next boat.”

“That’s what you jokers said last Sunday and the Sunday before that. What kinda outfit you boys runnin’ these days?” the man shot back, clenching his fists. “Mother wanted a headstone, that’s all I know. She was particular ’bout it. ‘Don’t you scatter me about like a bag of coal dust; bury me proper.’ She must have said it a dozen times.”

The captain leaned out of the pilothouse. “Give it up, Fred. We’ll get your stone soon enough.” Fred turned abruptly and slammed the door of his pickup and drove off the wharf.

It’s not giving too much away to disclose that, like Dr. Stone, Dr. Radis ends up staying. As to the particulars of how and why – you’ll just have to discover that for yourself.