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Not For the Squeamish: John O’Connor’s “The Boil”

by Jake Mohan 

Tags: creative nonficion, memoir, travel writing, Open City, John O'Connor,

open city 25Protruding unglamorously from the middle of Open City’s 25th issue, John O’Connor’s “The Boil” (article not available online) exhibits, in abundance, two of the most important qualities of successful creative nonfiction: self-deprecation and an unflinching devotion to unvarnished truth-telling, no matter how unflattering or unpleasant that truth may be.

And in a piece that stays tenaciously faithful to its subject—in this case, the horrendous dermatological ordeal indicated by the title, which I’m afraid is quite literal—those two qualities are absolutely essential.

O’Connor treats his plight with the perfect mixture of absurdity and bathos, describing the year he follows his girlfriend to Senegal, where his naïve stereotypes about post-colonial Africa are quickly thwarted: “I even packed The Green Hills of Africa thinking Hemingway’s bush heroics would inspire me. … My life there became less like Hemingway’s and more like Clov’s in Beckett’s Endgame; that is, one of almost unrelenting boredom, isolation, and despair.”

Universal truths like boredom and domestic dischord are rendered anew through O’Connor’s elegant turns of phrase: “We’d never fought before, but suddenly we were having apocalyptic arguments in which dishware perished en masse.” From there, the gruesome descriptions of the narrator’s physical decline begin, as he suffers bouts of constipation and infection alongside the growing abscess—which did I mention is located on his right buttock?

“I’m incredibly hairy down there. Every few weeks I have to hack away the overgrown vegetation in my entire Speedo region or I lose sight of the tree through the forest. …I stripped naked in our windowless kitchen and poked along the edges of the boil with a sewing needle, wincing a gasping, hoping to perforate its iridescent halo.”

Definitely not lunchtime reading, but thoroughly engaging and quite often hilarious, “The Boil” provides a compelling account of one Westerner’s encounter with Senegalese culture and the—pardon my word choice—skewering of his naïveté about both himself and the world.