Sensing Light: Remembering a Dark Time
A New Book by Mark A. Jacobson

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Friday July 08, 2016 - 10:11:00 AM

Don't be put off by the title. Sensing Light, Mark A. Jacobson's hefty new novel, is not about some illuminating traipse down the pathways of spiritual enlightenment—except in the darkest possible definition. Instead, the subject of this sprawling, heart-punching feat of modern storytelling is foreshadowed in the subtitle: "1979. An epidemic begins…."

Yes, this is a story about the AIDS epidemic.

Jacobson, a San Francisco-based author, has written a haunting novel populated with memorable characters that we quickly come to know and care about deeply. The book is a crackling good read. Jacobson is a master of the conversational novel. 

Sensing Light focuses on the HIV/AIDS outbreak from the vantage point of the baffled doctors who first encounter it and moves on through the decades of hard work that followed as medical science attempted to identify ways to contain and treat the illness. The chapters fly by in a flurry of front-line medical encounters. Readers will be drawn into the crowded bustle of the hospital corridors, into the hushed desperation that fills the intensive care quarters, into the methodology of testing labs, and the early academic conferences where doctors, nurses, victims, family, and friends try to come to grips with an inexplicable and apparently all-powerful plague that targets a singular demographic agenda—young, and otherwise healthy, gay men. 

Jacobson begins his story in 1979 with a chapter called "The First Case." Kevin Bartholomew is a senior resident attending to patients in the intensive care unit at San Francisco City Hospital. Our first image of Bartholomew—a young, gay doctor—is both mundane and startling. He is described as wearing, "scrubs and waist length white coat, already rumpled and stained with spattered coffee and blood." 

Working nearby is Herb Wu, an older attending physician and a gifted diagnostician. We soon meet Gwen Howard, a dedicated young nurse and divorcee. These are the three central characters that anchor this storm-tossed medical melodrama. All three have complex and informative back-stories—revealed in flashbacks to childhood incidents and embedded in the haunting knowledge of family dysfunctions past and present. 

Kevin, Herb, and Gwen each have their own close friends and family who enhance—and complicate—their lives. The novel easily expands its reach to include the desires and fears of these characters as well. The patients, too, enter our minds as people we come to know and care about. 

Readers fortunate enough to have lived beyond the reach of the HIV/AIDs virus may find themselves feeling what it must have been like to be stalked by a sinister disease that can hide in a kiss or strike with the sudden shock of an accidental needle prick. 

This book has a sure-fire factor that works to "focus the mind"—the ever-present threat of an unknowable and devastating disease. The reader is aboard for the ride and comes to understand the special fear that comes from not knowing when or how or who the malicious virus will strike. At any moment, we understand, any one of these brilliant and lively people can be claimed by a hideous disease. On the frontlines of this medical emergency, anyone can sicken and die. That's the take-away from the get-go. 

As the dark tide of the mysterious epidemic begins to rise and poison everyone's future, the Bay Area becomes a microcosm for a global epidemic that threatens to turn the world into a concentration camp where invisible microbial snipers can target anyone at any time. 

Reading this page-turner is something like watching a well-crafted TV drama. This is a style of writing designed to keep you on your toes. The short chapters jump-cut from one scene to another, hopping between locations and situations. Some of the chapters are as short as one or two pages. The conversations are salted with humor and irony—smart, crisp, urgent, teasing, and intense. It's like reading a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Think The Social Network meets Schindler's List (Footnote: It was Sorkin that Steven Spielberg invited to do a "dialogue wash" of the original Schindler screenplay). 

Clashes and confidences occur across many settings—from hospital corridors and intensive care units to after-hour meet-ups at local bars and raucous downtime parties in the homes of frazzled doctors in desperate need of blowing off steam. With the exception of soldiers on a battlefield, there are few jobs that require more physical, mental and emotional investment than being an emergency room professional. Jacobson does a fine job of portraying the human toll that lies in the aftermath of hours devoted to trying to cure—but too often merely managing to console—the afflicted. 

This is a novel of tragic human loss and heroic care giving that celebrates a resilient, unrelenting search for medical knowledge and life-prolonging solutions. 

This book is filled with heroes.