Mike Scalise’s book — ‘Scalees’ he insists, although the correct pronunciation is ‘Scalizay’ as he is told by a monotone Italian-American doctor — The Brand New Catastrophe is a memoir/collection of essays he wrote about his battle with a brain tumour and its subsequent adverse effects.
Scalise was an unemployed 24-year-old fresh out of college, living in New York City. He found out about the tumour in his brain, just behind his eyes, only when it grew too large and ruptured, causing him to lose consciousness and wake up in the emergency care of one Dr Sunshine (yes, that is his real name). The surgery to remove the tumour affected the ability of his pituitary glands to produce hormones such as, for instance, cortisol — that helps us deal with stress, and so Scalise now has to carefully plan his days in order to avoid sudden stressful encounters — or testosterone.
The reason for the original growth of the tumour was an excess production of Human Growth Hormone (HGH); it simultaneously caused a condition known as acromegaly or — as it is known in popular culture — gigantism, where the hands, feet and face grow too large in comparison to the rest of the body. Or sometimes including the rest of the body.
A poignant account of struggling with a life-changing health disorder
Scalise struggles with his changing appearance caused by the overload of HGH among the other struggles of coping with the surgery, the possible return of the tumour, his lack of employment as an English major, his girlfriend and more than everything else, his mother. He writes about these struggles with a refreshing lack of descriptive passages and needless ambient details; the point for him is not to describe what happened to him, but what it felt like.
The best parts inevitably have to do with his mother. Scalise writes that he thinks he’s quite funny, but to me his jokes seem a bit... obvious: throughout the book he jokes that people need to stop (or hurry up) because his “head’s about to explode.” His mother, however, is morbidly hilarious. A veteran of three heart surgeries and looking forward to a fourth, she’s the character that grounds this otherwise impressionistic trip down memory lane into a sharp-tongued reality — when someone asks her “What’s up?” she snottily replies, “A preposition.” Scalise and his mother even have a long-running competition to see whose life is more catastrophic.
His father is a bumbling non-figure. His brother is practically invisible. His girlfriend Loren, about whom he talks a lot, remains an underdeveloped character; by the end of the book she’s still the lover Loren, not Loren an independent person I could put together off the pages.
Not like the mother.
The other star of the show is acromegaly. Scalise has done great historical research and a clinical dissection of this disorder. He makes note of Hollywood actors who suffered from the condition and often played villainous roles in films because of their appearance, such as Richard Kiel from the James Bond films and Carel Struycken, best known for playing Lurch in the Adams Family films. He devotes an entire section of the book to the deceased wrestler Andre the Giant, a larger-than-life pop culture icon who was also afflicted with acromegaly. I grew up watching Andre the Giant on videotapes here in Pakistan, and even remember the match Scalise writes about in which Hulk Hogan bested him and more or less ended the Giant’s career. Small world for such big men.
The book is intermittently funny, but it becomes really gripping when Scalise begins to reconcile with his acromegaly, his hormone deficiencies and the regrowth of his tumour. I could practically feel the tension with him as he recounted his harrowing experiences. I also felt deep empathy when he wrote about his appearance and trying to spot other people with the same condition on trains and buses. I, too, am a chronically ill patient and much like Scalise, I have become extremely self-conscious about my appearance after a year of no mobility, no exercise and steady weight gain.
It is these tender moments of self-reflection in the book that really grip you. The humour is mostly shallow and bounced off my own pituitary gland in a moment, but the parts where Scalise describes how he painfully, frustratingly, learned to cope with the reckoning of his disease — those parts are intense. It can be a little difficult for readers to wrap their brains around Scalise’s experiences, and I say this as someone who has had quite a few experiences of my own.
While The Brand New Catastrophe is a poignant and well-written account, one niggling complaint I have is the proofreading of the text. There were a few typos, a missing article here, no space after a full stop there. Minor things, but noticeable nonetheless. The publisher is a non-profit independent publishing house so probably doesn’t have the resources to thoroughly fumigate for all typographical errors, but they’ve still done the world a service in publishing this book. Acromegaly is a condition that millions of people around the world suffer from silently. Until now I didn’t even know that the reason one of my favourite childhood wrestlers was so gigantic was because he suffered from a disorder, because he was housing a tumour that could turn malignant any second. Now I do.
The reviewer is a freelance writer and journalist
The Brand New Catastrophe
By Mike Scalise
Sarabande Books, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 29th, 2017