Work Both Sides

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I jump at any opportunity to hear a published writer speak, even if I’m not familiar with his or her work. Last week I was at a meeting where James Levine spoke about his novel, Bingo’s Run. Its topic, drug trafficking in the slums of Nairobi, broke my heart with its tragedies, so I had put the book aside, unfinished.

Levine is an MD PhD, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and inventor of the treadmill desk. His latest book, Get Up, chronicles the obesity epidemic in this country and provides prescriptions for saving us from its diseases and declining life span. Levine assures us that sitting is the new smoking. I was interested to hear how this double doctor came to write a novel about Kenyan drug runners, and several other books, including The Blue Notebook, a novel about the sex trade in India.

Levine began his talk by describing his own kidnapping ordeal in Delhi. The soft-spoken, smiley Brit recounted details of his abduction and subsequent captivity in a tiny concrete cell for four days. He managed to inject humor into the terrifying story that could have ended badly, but concluded in his safe release. His travels often put him in harm’s way, but also provide rich material for his writing.

He does not consider himself a physician who writes books on the side. In his view, medical work and his writing career are two full-time jobs. He spoke of his interest in the intersection of art and science, describing it in beautiful imagery: a river valley, one side filled with lush flora and fauna, untamed vegetation spreading in every direction, the opposite side occupied by orderly fields and manicured gardens. The former represents the creative realm, while the latter embodies the structure of science. A river flows between them, en route to the ocean, which is truth. He felt that his work on both sides has gotten him farther down the river than if he had only toiled on one.

After listening to Levine’s soulful stories and passionate devotion to health and wellness for all people, I felt compelled to finish Bingo’s Run. It’s the story of a child at risk, an orphan drug runner who keeps moving forward despite the odds against him. His wits and speed are all he has, although some benevolent forces seem to be helping him along. There’s humor in this story, even though its stage is grim. The institutions that are meant to provide order are corrupt as well, and hustling is the name of the game. Still, Levine’s world view is evident between the lines. The river flowing toward truth is deep and wide, and treacherous in spots. Redemption is possible, if we can keep our heads above the water.

I’m glad I went to the talk, and equally glad I didn’t leave the book unfinished. Both experiences gave me a peek into a creative and intelligent mind that works tirelessly on both sides of the riverbank. The result is a closer glimpse of the truth for all of us.

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