The Tennis Partner: A Doctor's Story of Friendship and Loss

The Tennis Partner: A Doctor's Story of Friendship and Loss

by Abraham Verghese


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An unforgettable, illuminating story of how men live and how they survive, from the acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of Cutting for Stone

When Abraham Verghese, a physician whose marriage is unraveling, relocates to El Paso, Texas, he hopes to make a fresh start as a staff member at the county hospital. There he meets David Smith, a medical student recovering from drug addiction, and the two men begin a tennis ritual that allows them to shed their inhibitions and find security in the sport they love and with each other. This friendship between doctor and intern grows increasingly rich and complex, more intimate than two men usually allow. Just when it seems nothing can go wrong, the dark beast from David’s past emerges once again—and almost everything Verghese has come to trust and believe in is threatened as David spirals out of control.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062116390
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/20/2011
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 188,308
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

A practicing physician and a professor of medicine at Stanford University, Abraham Verghese is the author of My Own Country and Cutting for Stone. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and other publications. He lives in Palo Alto, California.

Read an Excerpt

There are two Thanksgivings in El Paso. The one in November is observed much as it is in the rest of America: turkey, dressing, corn, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie, then motor shutdown, a retreat to the couch and TV. Six hundred thousand Pasenos watch the Cowboys play in Texas Stadium six hundred miles east.
The other Thanksgiving is celebrated on the last Sunday in April. It commemorates the day Don Juan de Onate's party of one hundred and thirty families, two hundred and seventy single men, eleven Franciscan friars, eighty-three wagons, and seven thousand cattle discovered El Paso del Norte, the Pass to the North. Previous Spanish explorers had taken the routes along the Conchos River to the Rio Grande, but Onate's colonists had marched from Santa Barbara in New Spain (Mexico) straight up and across the treacherous desert north of Chihuahua city. By the time the advance party of eight horsemen scuffed through brush and cottonwood and finally saw the Rio Grande, they were cotton-mouthed, crazy with thirst. Two horses plunged in and were swept away. Two others drank enough to rupture their stomachs. What Onate had discovered after the fifty-day desert crossing—the last five days with no water at all—was a magnificent valley formed by the Rio Grande as it emerged from the southernmost spurs of the Rockies.
Here, on April 20, 1598, Onate stopped and held a Mass of thanksgiving. He claimed the new territory—New Mexico—in the name of Philip II of Spain a full two decades before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. "I take all jurisdiction, civil as well as criminal, high as well as low, from the edge of the mountains to the stones and sand in therivers, and the leaves of the trees . . ." This opening into the new territory—el paso—would be the caravan route, the lifeline of New Mexico, the jewel in the Camino Real.

Just as there are two Thanksgivings, there are two El Pasos. One is visible from the highway, an El Paso that a trucker traversing America on Interstate 10 from Jacksonville to Los Angeles might see and find nothing to distinguish it from any other American city but for the way it and the Franklin Mountains spring out of the parched and desolate land. He might catch glimpses of the Rio Grande bordering the freeway and beyond that see houses in Juarez, Mexico, sitting on a rise.
It might seem to such an observer as if a desert wind had gleaned pieces of Sacramento, Hackensack, Des Moines, and Dallas and deposited them here where they have rooted and now sprout Blockbusters, Kmarts, Targets, U-Hauls, and every other franchise flavor, their fluorescent signs beckoning like listless whores from both sides of the freeway. And to the trucker's eyes, what little desert he can see past the strip malls and billboards is occupied by bulldozers and cement mixers that are paving over cactus and creosote with the same abandon they had shown Phoenix only twenty years before. From the cab of the truck, the town's founding father would appear to be Sam Walton, and the Wal-Mart edifice its epicenter. And then, fifteen or so exits later, the vision is gone—a forgettable mirage perhaps.

?Donde esta la estacion del ferrocarril? asked the audio Spanish tape in my car.
"La estacion del ferrocarril esta a la derecha," I replied, though I had no idea where the train station was.
After three days of unpacking boxes in our new El Paso house, I had risen before dawn, dressed for my first day at work, and then joined a wagon train of early risers, speeding in two columns, headlights on, down a looping access road to that same freeway. Fortunately, the sign clearly said I-10 east, because in the limitless desert, without the sun, there was almost no way to tell. When Vasquez de Coronado and his party explored the Southwest in 1541, they used the sunrise as a guide, firing an arrow at the sun, and then, before they overtook the first arrow, letting fly another one and another, following this aerial trail until they came to the Rio Grande.
I sped past a square building, and off to one side I saw into a lighted window. A white-uniformed, dark-haired man hovered over someone else's knees, snowcaps on shapeless thighs. He stood as if picking logs from a woodpile. That's all I saw as I passed by. I swiveled my neck against the edge of the seat belt. I thought I saw a sign for the Coronado Nursing Center.
Then I was on the freeway, racing through the desert, the Franklin Mountains now on my left, the river on my right, that tableau from the nursing home well behind me.
But my mind insisted on lingering there, filling in the blanks. I could see the attendant folding over and wedging the soiled draw sheet under the bottom of a withered woman as she lay on one side. I could see him flip her over, using her knees as a lever. One tug and the bundled-up sheet was free and joined the growing pile in the laundry bag. She looked at his face, unable to speak, a prisoner in her own stroke-ravaged brain. And on his face was the set look of a man finding the necessary distance needed to finish work that was not particularly gratifying.

Alone behind our bedroom windows, alone in our cars, towns give us the necessary illusion that we belong. Until that moment, I had felt camouflaged in this new town, shielded from prying eyes, free in my new job to spin a new persona, to pitch my myth, the African-born-but-of-Indian-parentage-naturalized-American saga and to weave it into all the other dusty histories of The Pass. I loved the role of newcomer to town, relished the contrast between the lands I had left behind and this desert where there were broad spaces even between raindrops.

Table of Contents

"Abraham Verghese has shown us once again that he is an old-fashioned physician of the soul. [He] writes in a miraculous style -- courageous yet tender. The Tennis Partner supersedes any memoir I've ever read. It is a wonderful examination of what it means to be alive."--Kaye Gibbons, author of On the Occasion Of My Last Afternoon

"Verghese weaves his own story with that of a place and another person to come up with something moving and insightful, as he writes, to tell a life story [is] to engage in a form of seduction, then Verghese is a master of romance."
--Publishers Weekly

Abraham Verghese's award-winning memoir My Own Country -- named one of the five best books of 1994 by Time magazine -- bore witness to the onslaught of AIDS in a small Tennessee mountain town. Dr. Verghese's treatment of and outreach to these patients revealed something vital about the American spirit, reminding us, wrote the Washington Post Book World, of "what is honorable and charitable in the way humans behave toward each other."

But that was just the beginning of the doctor's story. The Tennis Partner, Verghese, born in Africa to Indian parents, once again writes eloquently of his patients, his marriage, and most poignantly, of an extraordinary friendship with a medical student. Like Calvin Trillan's Remembering Denny, The Tennis Partner is a visceral, deeply honest book about one man confronting his own fears and insecurities with clarity and emotional truth. It is also a searing look at the phenomenon of drug abuse among physicians and the fragile nature of friendship.

In 1991, when Verghese moved west to the border town of El Paso, Texas, he crossed paths with David Smith, a medical student who had immigrated to America from Australia and played tennis on the pro tour before becoming a doctor. Just as Verghese needed a partner on the court, Smith needed a mentor in the county hospital.

What begins on the tennis court as a workout between two colleagues evolves into a tight relationship in which confidences are shared and secrets are kept; this developing friendship also serves as a soothing balm for Verghese's disintegrating marriage.

Yet, it is Verghese's spontaneous confession that his marriage is failing that provokes Smith to admit that he is a recovering intravenous cocaine addict, desperately struggling to hold on to his girlfriend, career, and sobriety. Smith admits that their tennis ritual and friendship are his only lifelines, without which he would have long returned to the needle.

When Smith begins shooting up with cocaine again, Verghese worries that the drug's lure will prove to be stronger than their relationship. His hope that his friend can find his way back from the abyss competes with his anger over Smith's weakness.

Join Book Talk to chat with Abraham Verghese about his heartfelt, illuminating new book, The Tennis Partner -- truly an examination of the care we must take with those we love.

What People are Saying About This

W.P. Kinsella

Abraham Verghese is a wonderful storyteller. The language is irresistible, clear as springwater, sharp as the ring of fine crystal. I enjoyed every word. -- Author of Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy

Denise Chavez

"The Tennis Partner, haunts and empowers with each volley. -- Author of Face of an Angel

Peter D. Kramer

With writerly grace, Verghese introduces us to the disciplines he holds sacred: tennis, internal medicine, fatherhood, male friendship. Everywhere he is a diagnostician, a teacher, a lover of physical presence. But finally as he walks the back alleys of El Paso searching for his drug-abusing colleague, we understand who Verghese is at his core, a man of honor who goes down mean streets and remains himself good enough for any world. This is an extraordinary book. -- Author of Listening to Prozac and Should You Leave?.

Natalie Goldberg

This is a knockout book. Beautifully written, it broke my heart and made me happy all at the same time. -- Author of Writing Down the Bones

Kaye Gibbons

"Abraham Verghese has shown us once again that he is an old-fashioned physician of the soul. Most extraordinarily, he finds metaphors for the blessings of humanity in the art of tennis as healing. He recounts the living abundance of frienship and the dissolution of a brilliant friend and doctor. Dr. Verghese writes in a miraculous style -- courageous yet tender. The Tennis Partner supersedes any memoir I've ever read. It is a wonderful examination of what it means to be alive." -- Author of On the occasion of My last Afternoon

Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
Abraham Verghese's memoir The Tennis Partner tells the story of a deeply moving friendship between two doctors. Relocating to an unfamiliar border city as his marriage unravels, physician Abraham Verghese feels alienated and yet strangely unburdened. When he meets a medical student, David Smith, they begin a tennis ritual that allows both men to shed their inhibitions and find security in the sport they love and in each other. The bond they develop as their game progresses becomes increasingly rich and complex. In the hospital, Abraham is the teacher and David the student; on the courts their roles are reversed. Abraham confides in David, telling him about the disintegration of his marriage. David in turn tells him that he is a recovering cocaine addict, and recounts the long saga of his many relapses before he finally became sober. Their intimate friendship reaches new heights, but just when things seem perfect, David begins pulling away, leading to a starling ending which Verghese captures with the tender voice and perceptive eye of a skilled clinician. Ultimately, this is an affecting, heartfelt account of a compassionate doctor and his struggle to understand--and to save--a friend he has come to cherish.

Topics for Discussion
1. Do you think David might have been a happier and healthier person had he chosen a different profession instead of medicine? Is there something about medicine that attract addiction-prone individuals or that causes people to turn to drugs?

2. After returning from the Talbott-Marsh clinic, David proudly tells Verghese he has at last found "true recovery". A short time later he is back on drugs and moredesperate than ever. What happened? Why does he relapse so quickly and tragically?

3. In a sense, this is a book about foreigners adjusting to a new country. How does Verghese uses foreignness and alienation to heighten the intensity of his narrative? Talk about David's story as a kind of dark underside of the American dream of renewal.

4. "Tennis was so much more than a game," Verghese writes at one point -- and yet, as he acknowledges at the end, it is also just a game -- a simple, even slightly absurd ritual "of the yellow ball." How does Verghese manage to tie together so many of the book's complex strands through tennis?

5. Do you think Verghese is being honest -- with himself and with us -- about the sexual element in his attraction to David? Do you think this is basically a healthy relationship? Or do you feel Verghese is unaware of how deeply involved and dependent he is on David?

6. David stands at a juncture between two opposite paths: an orderly middle class existence in medicine with a wife and a "dream house"; and a hell of drug addiction, shame, poverty, disease and death. Does David choose hell in part because the respectable middle class existence is so hollow, so spiritually vacant? What other alternative could there be for someone like David? What about for Verghese himself?

7. Do you really believe that drug addiction is a "disease" comparable to diabetes or cancer, or do you think that talking about it in this way is harmful because it somehow absolves the addict of responsibility? Which view does Verghese endorse?

8. Talk about the statement that "David is responsible for David" and how it plays out in the two men's relationship in the final pages of the book. How can a true friend deny responsibility for his friend in crisis? Did Verghese act responsibly in calling the police or did he betray his friend's trust?

About the Author: Abraham Verghese is a professor of medicine at Texas Tech University and the author of My Own Country. He lectures on medical humanities at many medical schools and is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. He lives with his wife, Sylvia, and three children in El Paso, Texas.

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The Tennis Partner 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having been personally trained by Dr. Verghese, I can say that his talent is truly remarkable. It is rather interesting how he describes all the events and scenes of El Paso so vividly and true, that when you are actually at the many locations in the book, one can recall and relay the exact details he describes in The Tennis Partner. He is very poetic, with an incredibly eloquent touch of deepness in his writing. With his worldly experiences as well as his vast knowledge of medicine, Dr. Verghese truly treats his patients with 'culture and sensitivity.' Some may say that I am biased for having known him, but if you could meet him and actually be trained by him, you would be able to see his incredible compassion for his patients, his students, medicine, writing, and the world itself. Very admirable.
SqueakyChu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It¿s not often that I read a book about male friendship, but I believe this heartbreaking memoir is one of the best. The two friends are Abraham Verghese, author of this memoir and physician at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, and David Smith, a medical student from Australia who formerly had the opportunity to become a tennis professional. Due to the life circumstances of these two men, their bond begins somewhat tenuously. Later we find that, despite a strengthening bond which is inextricably linked to tennis, there is an unspoken barrier which can never be breached.The book is fascinating in its honesty. It captures so well the author¿s dedication to medicine, his love for tennis, the strength he musters in separating from his wife, his vulnerability in opening himself up to disappointment in friendship, and his understanding of the terrible cost of drug abuse. The easy, intelligent writing style of Dr.Verghese is beautiful to read. After finishing this book, one comes away with a feeling of knowing the author and a desire to hear more of what he has to say.
SamSattler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dr. Abraham Verghese is going through a difficult time when he meets fourth-year medical student David Smith at his El Paso teaching hospital. Verghese has moved his wife and two young sons to El Paso hoping for a fresh start, but his marriage is already in trouble and he will soon find himself living apart from his wife and boys. Australian David Smith is a Texas Tech student at the El Paso hospital to complete his final year before moving on to the next stage of his medical studies. Smith is going through a difficult time of his own, one that constantly threatens to ruin his life, if not end it entirely.The two seem destined to hit it off ¿ and, soon, they will be more than teacher and student, they will be close friends. They share two passions in life: medicine and tennis. Smith is good enough to have played the game professionally for a while, and Verghese loves tennis so much that he has been keeping journals about his progress in the sport since he was a boy. Both Verghese and Smith need something to distract them from the stress of their daily lives and the local tennis club becomes their common refuge. It is only later that Dr. Verghese learns that Smith is in El Paso to repeat his fourth-year studies ¿ and why - and that Smith is very fortunate to have been given a second chance at the process. David Smith is addicted to cocaine and it is destroying him. Despite being subject to random drug testing, regular AA-style meetings, and the monitoring of a sponsor if he is to keep his place in the school, Smith has to struggle mightily every day not to give in to his craving for the drug. That his professional future depends on him remaining sober will not be enough to make it happen."The Tennis Partner" is the story of a unique friendship between two men at a time in their lives when each man is in desperate need of the kind of support that only a close male friend can offer. At the hospital, Dr. Verghese is the teacher and mentor that Smith so badly needs; on the tennis court, Smith is the teacher, Verghese the student. When Dr. Verghese realizes that Smith is relapsing into his addiction, he finds it difficult to decide what his obligations are. Does he respond as Smith¿s friend or as his teacher? Do his obligations to the hospital override those he feels toward David as the only friend David Smith seems to have in the world?Those readers who discovered Abraham Verghese through his wonderful 2009 novel, "Cutting for Stone," will already know what a powerful fiction writer the man is. They will be happy to find that he displays the same skill level in 1998¿s "The Tennis Partner," his second memoir. The tragedy of David Smith¿s life provides the focal point of the book but, along the way, Verghese explores topics as varied as fatherhood, marriage, the health care system along the southern U.S. border, friendship, addiction, and loyalty.Rated at: 4.0
dickcraig on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the second book by Verghese and I liked it nearly as much as the first. The author confides in one of his medical students about his divorce while the student teaches him the game of tennis. Verghese has keen observations of love and friendship as his partner sinks further into a bad drug habit.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful writing style. Reads like a novel.
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Moonmist More than 1 year ago
I was one of many individuals to have the privilege of knowing Dr. Verghese and David Smith through my association with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso. The story relating to David's tragic life and death hit me like it happened only yesterday. David was a person that everyone liked. He had a promising career as a physician who wanted to specialize in Emergency Medicine. Unfortunately, his drug addiction brought about his tragic end. This book should be read by anyone that has or is suffering from a drug addiction. From Dr. Verghese's story, one will be drawn into the promise and the darkness that overtook a young man before he could visualize and follow his dream.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
For any student of the game of tennis who is madly in love with the game and its ability to completely take over your life, 'The Tennis Partner' will ring true in many ways. Verghese understands the passion behind the game and how it can draw two men together despite the difficulties in their relationship. Written with a lucid prose, the book sometimes feels a bit raw in its emotion, but you can hardly fault the author for baring his soul about his love for the game of tennis and his desire to share it with his friend, despite his friend's struggle with drug addiction. The book also treads fragile ground by venturing forth into intense relationships between heterosexual men. The book is risky in its integrity as well as its intensity in the author's descriptions of his emotions for his tennis partner. But, best of all, he desribes beautifully what many of us love so much - the game of tennis.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an incredibly honest accounting of a friendship -- and how the underlying needs, lacks and problems affect its outcome.