A review of What’s Wrong with Dorfman by John Blumenthal

The style is a marvelous succession of deadpan one-liners, quick and funny. A perceptive reader will see in this a device whereby Dorfman, the narrator, distances himself from his problems.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

What’s Wrong with Dorfman?
By John Blumenthal
St. Martin’s Griffin 2000, ISBN 0-312-31188-5, $12.95, 280 pages

What’s wrong with Martin Dorfman is loss of appetite, nausea and inability to sleep. His condition is not susceptible of medical treatment and, although he subjects himself to all of the most horrid tests provided by medical science, nothing appears to be wrong with him physically.

Martin is a writer for the movies and his career is at low ebb. His wife and children have gone to Germany to visit relatives. He is by himself – except for his doctor and a patient, a fellow sufferer, that he meets in the doctor’s office. Superficially at least Delilah Foster is a bigger hypochondriac that Martin. They form a bond based on their mutual sufferings and the inability of their doctor to find a cure.

The style is a marvelous succession of deadpan one-liners, quick and funny. A perceptive reader will see in this a device whereby Dorfman, the narrator, distances himself from his problems. The first part ends with a description of Martin’s experiences in the hospital. However accurate, the description may prove difficult for a squeamish reader. The hospital scene ends Part 1 – there are three parts of unequal length.

Dorfman pursues his subject in a roundabout way and we learn as much about his past and his family as we do about his present illness and his faltering career. He tells us about his father, Dr. Felix Dorfman, a difficult and strongly opinionated man who is a reluctant practitioner of medicine and a devoted part time painter. All his paintings portray as their subject a suffering man, apparently tortured by illness and sorrow. Apart from these activities he spends his time in destroying Martin’s self-confidence and ignoring Phoebe, his daughter. His paranoid concerns about sanitary matters go beyond excessive. He suggests, for example, that Martin purify his soap with Lysol. In the family conflicts Martin acts – inappropriately for his age – as mediator.

The opening of Part 2 suffers from a momentary loss of control. The story falters and grows repetitious but as Martin’s career improves so does the story and we are soon underway as Martin enjoys a momentary appearance of success that he sabotages unintentionally with decisions based on over-confidence. In the midst of this traumatic event his doctor tells him the results of his tests. There is nothing wrong with him and Dr. Margolis suggests that he pursue alternatives such as Chinese herbal medicine, chiropracty or acupuncture.

He tries and describes the horrible results of two of them. Much of the story now pivots on his sessions with his therapist, and she is a splendidly hard-mouthed woman who is a match for Martin, expert at shielding his true thoughts and feelings. She deduces that his problem stems from an event in his childhood that he cannot remember. She tries unsuccessfully to extract it by hypnosis and – desperate – has him call Phoebe who tells him the story of occurrences of unusual family strife, unusual even in the strife-ridden Dorfman family. But the revelation works no miracle and she refers him to another doctor, a psychopharmacologist. With his aid and the emergence of a family crisis that enables Martin to lay the ghosts of his past, he recovers his health. His illness has lasted for two years. During this time his career has caromed madly but has righted itself at last. It is a happy and satisfying ending.

This is a very readable book with the only longueur being that noted at the beginning of Part 2. Blumenthal demonstrates brilliant ability at orchestrating many elements. Minor characters are vivid and the author’s wit, along with his many other virtues, creates a lively, entertaining and discreetly instructive novel. This is well worth your attention.

For more information vsit: Dorfman

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: