Stephen White

Alan Gregory -Psychologist, Boulder, Colorado

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"Dry Ice"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky JUN 6, 2007)

“The second big fear was that the act of having chosen to keep a secret from a loved one would become more potent than whatever knowledge was hidden. We choose secrecy at one point in our lives—presumably it makes sense to us at the time—and we protect the secrecy through the phases that follow.  Do the facts truly remain dangerous later on?  Worthy of all the subterfuge?  Or does the existence of the secrecy become the real danger requiring protection?”

Dry Ice by Stephen White

Stephen White's Dry Ice is narrated by Boulder, Colorado, psychologist Alan Gregory, a man who himself is in need of therapeutic intervention.  He is depressed about the suicide of a former patient, he and his wife, Lauren (who suffers from multiple sclerosis), have drifted apart, an enemy of his has escaped custody and is out to destroy his entire family, and he has begun to anesthetize himself with alcohol on a nightly basis. Much of Gregory's angst stems from a secret that he has kept from his wife for many years; the effort of hiding such an important event from her has taken a huge toll.

The title is related to the chemical and psychological processes of sublimation.  In chemistry, "sublimation is the process by which matter changes from a solid state into a vapor without first melting."  One theme of the book is:  How do some people survive unspeakable traumas without experiencing emotional meltdowns?  What process allows troubled individuals to sublimate their negative experiences into positive actions?  Why do others perpetuate the tragedy of their lives by inflicting further damage on themselves, their families, and even strangers?   Another theme is:  What price do we pay for lying or withholding important information from our loved ones?  As the villain of the piece states:  “Secrets aren’t secret. They’re just hidden treasures, waiting to be exploited.”

As he has consistently done in the Alan Gregory series, White makes the most of his setting.  His descriptions of the breathtaking Boulder scenery will make some readers long to see the mountainous vistas and glorious sunsets that Colorado residents enjoy regularly.  The author skillfully and compassionately handles the subject of how a young and active woman manages to live with multiple sclerosis.  Instead of portraying Lauren as a pitiful woman or a paragon of virtue, White makes her a flawed and multi-layered character.  She is a busy mother and a deputy district attorney who courageously carries on with her routines as well as she can in spite of constant pain and fatigue.  However, her relationship with Alan is quickly deteriorating, and neither one knows how to bring back the closeness that they once shared.

The book's flaws include an occasionally turgid, ostentatious, and wordy writing style that calls attention to itself with overblown similes and metaphors.  For example, when he spots a bandana that is a clue to something that happened long ago, Gregory says:  “The bandana was a thunderstorm parked over a canyon, unleashing a flash flood from my past.” In addition, the plot is far-fetched and extremely complicated.  Gregory is framed for a crime he didn't commit, he is tempted by the attentions of a beautiful former patient, he fears that he is losing his therapeutic skills, and everyone must deal with McClelland's nefarious activities.  The book wraps up with a host of twists and turns that are absolutely dizzying.  Although, for the most part, the book held my interest, the story lacks the resonance and depth of White's earlier and better crafted novels.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 32 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Dry Ice at author's website

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"Kill Me"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky MAR 22, 2006)

“They keep their end of the bargain by creating the appearance of accidental death.  The how is up to them.  Your family will not suspect a thing.  You won’t ever know when the end is coming, or how the end is coming.  They plan it.  They take care of it.  They promise sudden.  They aim for painless.”

Kill Me by Stephen White

Stephen White’s latest thriller, Kill Me deals with a new concept—death insurance.  Suppose you were a fabulously wealthy man, and you wanted to be sure that your life ended before you became severely disabled or impaired.  Would you pay an organization over a million dollars to kill you and make your death look natural?  That is the choice facing the protagonist and narrator of this novel, whose name we never learn.  White’s recurring character, psychologist Alan Gregory, plays a brief but essential role in this novel.  He helps the narrator come to terms with issues of vulnerability, intimacy, and the existence of a son he never knew he had.

The narrator, whom I’ll call Mr. X, is an arrogant and high-powered businessman with a private plane and more money than he’ll ever need.  He has had affairs with scores of women, and one of his brief encounters resulted in the birth of a son, Adam, whom Mr. X meets when the adolescent boy tracks him down.  By then, X is married to the beautiful and sensitive Thea, and they have a baby girl.  Is there room for Adam in X’s life?  What emotional solace can he provide for this emotionally needy young man?  Much to X’s shock, he finds that he has a medical condition that may hasten his death, but he decides that he wants to live long enough to bring closure to Adam.  Will the so called “Death Angels,” which is the nickname that X gives to the people whom he hired to kill him, let him live or will they fulfill their end of the bargain regardless of X’s wishes?

Stephen White is a skilled author, and he has come up with what is arguably one of the most original ideas for a thriller ever.  However, does White make it work?  The execution (no pun intended), as it turns out, is not as satisfying as the setup of the story.  Mr. X is a control freak who insists on having the upper hand in every business or social transaction.  It is completely out of character for this man to cede control over his life to the Death Angels.  There are many other melodramatic and contrived elements in this novel that make it difficult to suspend one’s disbelief.  On the plus side, the scenes when X visits Dr. Gregory and they engage in verbal sparring matches before getting down to the business of psychotherapy are effective and poignant.  As a result of his sessions with Dr. Gregory, X learns to look inside himself, and he begins to realize that it is time to get his priorities in order. 

Kill Me poses some timely questions about a person’s “right to die.”  Unfortunately, White doesn’t spend much time getting to root of this ethical dilemma.  Instead, the book morphs into a conventional thriller, in which X engages in car chases and a battle of wits, racing against time to accomplish his goals before the Death Angels mow him down.  The conclusion is so over the top that it throws the entire novel completely out of balance.  I have always admired Stephen White’s work, but this time, I wish he had crafted this potentially compelling story with more care.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 60 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Kill Me at author's website



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Psychologist Alan Gregory Series:

Sam Purdy novels:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Stephen WhiteStephen White was born on Long Island, White grew up in New York, New Jersey, and Southern California and attended the University of California campuses at Irvine (where he lasted three weeks as a creative writing major) and Los Angeles before graduating from Berkeley in 1972. Along the way he learned to fly small planes, worked as a tour guide at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, cooked and waited tables at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and tended bar at the Red Lion Inn in Boulder. Trained as a clinical psychologist, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado in 1979 and became known as an authority on the psychological effects of marital disruption, especially on men.

After receiving his doctorate, White not only worked in private practice but also at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and later as a staff psychologist at The Children's Hospital in Denver, where he focused his attention on pediatric cancer patients. During those years he became acquainted with a colleague in Los Angeles, another pediatric psychologist named Jonathan Kellerman. At the time, Kellerman and White were two of only about a dozen psychologists in the country working in pediatric oncology.

He recevied the 2002 Golden Psi Media Award from the American Psychological Association for the positive portrayal of psychology and contributing to consumer education regarding appropriate behavior by mental health professionals.

He lives with his family in Denver, Colorado.

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