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Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
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An American Checkup

A-PhysicalAnAmericanCheckupJames McManus could be the poster child for a growing number of boomer males: early 50s; unabashed about his eating, drinking, and exercise habits; a smoker who would rather not follow his doctor’s advice (or get that advice, for that matter). When an editor at Harper’s offers McManus the opportunity for a comprehensive physical at the Mayo Clinic, he jumps at the chance—more for the work than for the lowdown on his health. "Accepting this plummy assignment would more or less guarantee I’d be told things I did not want to hear," he admits. The result is an extended rumination—humorous, poignant, at times indignant—on his own life as well as the lives of his children and the state of health care in America.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages. $24. ISBN: 0374232024

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The great virtue of Physical: An American Checkup is that it inspires the reader to move from the particular to the general—from concerns about one’s own health and the health of loved ones to concerns about the merits and deficiencies of the health-care system that serves us all." Jay Neugeboren

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
Physical is ostensibly a memoir about McManus’ very thorough examination at the Mayo Clinic, but that is only the starting point of what is not a single, integrated work but a powerful collection of essays. … This book doesn’t have the forward momentum or the fairy-tale ending of Positively Fifth Street, but like Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking, it is a lively examination of mortality." J. D. Dolan

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is fascinating material, ripe for exploration, and McManus is a terrific writer—sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, and lots of fun to read. … McManus’s own limits are that he can raise the right questions when writing about his personal life and can tug tantalizingly at answers, but cannot provide the big-picture framework needed to address them in full." Pamela Paul

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Being a novelist, as well as a gambler and a journalist, McManus seasons his text with literary and historical allusions. … McManus’s grab bag of personal anecdote, medical history, and polemic offers an entertaining and often insightful look at one man’s experience with the health care system." Edward Nawotka

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 2.5 of 5 Stars
"His internal monologues are worth reading because of their word play. … [McManus’s observations] add up to a mess of a book, or, perhaps more precisely, a bunch of clever writing that should have been marketed as a collection of essays rather than a non-fiction narrative." Steve Weinberg

Minneapolis Star Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The jumble of tones and topics in Physical ultimately makes the book feel disjointed. … [The book] doesn’t have a story arc so much as a handful of assertions." Mark Athitakis

Critical Summary

McManus, journalist, novelist, and the author of the wildly popular Positively Fifth Street (2003), a compelling tale of big-stakes gambling at the 2000 World Series of Poker, follows that book with an account of his own mortality. The author’s irreverent sense of humor is his strength. The highly readable story, however, suffers a fate similar to that of many magazine articles-cum-books—namely, the short piece’s inability to shoulder the weight of further examination and the addition of larger, more serious issues, including the suicide of a son and the fragility of his other children’s health. The critical reception of Physical suffers perhaps as much from the success of Positively Fifth Street as from the disjointedness of the narrative at hand.

Cited by the Critics

The Undertaking Life Studies from the Dismal Trade | Thomas Lynch (1997): A National Book Award Finalist. Lynch is a funeral director in Milford, Michigan—and a poet. In a series of essays, some quite masterful, he ruminates on death, describing everything from embalming his own father to his idea for a "golfatorium," a combined cemetery and golf course.