cover image Butcher


Joyce Carol Oates. Knopf, $30 (312p) ISBN 978-0-593-53777-0

Oates (Zero-Sum) delivers a deliciously arch and relentlessly gloomy fictional biography of Dr. Silas Aloysius Weir, a character based on two 19th-century doctors. Weir, known during his time as the “Father of Modern Gyno-Psychiatry,” was also called the “Red-Handed Butcher” for his gruesome experiments on women during his 35-year stint at the New Jersey State Asylum for Female Lunatics in Trenton. The bulk of the novel is presented as a Nabokovian manuscript composed of accounts by Weir’s colleagues, family members, and patients, which have been assembled and annotated by his oldest son, Jonathan. Banished from a Pennsylvania hospital after a failed cranial surgery on an infant, Weir applies his “colossal egotism” to his new patients at the asylum, asserting that “mental illness in females is a consequence of infection, particularly of the female genitals.” To that end, he turns a tablespoon into a speculum and introduces sadistic treatments with misleading names like the “Chair of Tranquility.” The recipient of many of his surgeries is Brigit Kenealy, a young, indentured albino Irish servant who becomes his romantic obsession and assistant. Oates’s scathing indictment of the physical and psychological treatment of women by the medical establishment makes for compulsive but challenging reading. Unlike the ghastly procedures depicted, Oates’s inventive gothic novel pays off. Agent: Warren Frazier, John Hawkins & Assoc. (May)