Picks and Pans Review: My Own Country

updated 05/23/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/23/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Abraham Verghese

During the summer of 1985, a young blond man was wheeled into a hospital emergency room in Johnson City, Tenn., "puffing like an overheated steam engine...squeezing in 45 breaths a minute." My Own Country begins with the riveting account of how the staff at the Johnson City Medical Center mobilized to save the man's life—and how the rural Smoky Mountain community recoiled when it discovered that the patient had AIDS. "The hometown boy was now regarded as an alien, the father an object of pity," writes Verghese, a physician specializing in infectious diseases, who settled in Johnson City shortly after the young man died.

An outsider himself, Verghese soon became the town's primary caretaker of AIDS patients—nearly 100 over three years. They are the heroes of this story: gay men returning home and coming to terms with their sexuality, a heterosexual couple infected by a blood transfusion, a hemophiliac who yearns to improve his relationship with his father. In this account of a deadly disease insinuating itself into America's heartland, Verghese, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, who has published fiction in The New Yorker and elsewhere, captures the conflicted emotions that rock the local citizenry. The result is a wrenching, gracefully written memoir. (Simon & Schuster, $23)

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