I Couldn’t Put Down The Hospital Always Wins by Issa Ibrahim
Book: The Hospital Always Wins by Issa Ibrahim
Rating: 5/5 traced Beatles album covers
Recommended if you like: Jack Kerouac, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, books about mental health, idk.. books, it’s just good and you should read it
Published: June 2016 by Chicago Review Press; 288 pages
An electronic review copy was provided by Chicago Review Press.
The cover and title of The Hospital Always Wins drew me in immediately. I’m here for any books about mental health, especially memoirs, having struggled with it most of my life. I kept eyeing Hospital in my reader while I tried to slog through a different book that I didn’t end up finishing; I wanted to jump into it, and once I did, I couldn’t put it down.
Issa Ibrahim’s charisma and gift of rich language draw you into the story. Quick chapters and alternating timelines keep you on your toes but without jarring you out of the narrative; his story flows seamlessly and easily. We find out early that Issa spent twenty years in a mental hospital and that he has been released by the court. He committed a crime to end up there, we don’t know what. Issa (if he doesn’t mind my familiarity in calling him Issa–having read his story, I feel intimate with him now) certainly seems all together as he writes his narrative. He does not seem like he would end up in a mental hospital, but mental illness is like that: it’s wily and complicated and sometimes sneakily subtle, not at all like the caricatures we see in popular culture.
Over many chapters, Mr. Ibrahim unravels his story. We’re shown his life through vivid images of his childhood, the wild jazz and pot parties that his parents threw, memories of his dad as a musician and tomcat, his mother doting on him, the prodigy, the artist. Interspersed with these scenes of family life are chapters about life in Creedmoor, the mental hospital where Issa spent most of his time, and transitory stints in places like Riker’s Island. His time at Creedmoor is marked by corruption among the staff, including some ill-advised flings with women who are designated his caretakers.
We find out that Issa’s family disowned him; we are to understand that the crime he committed was unforgivable, but he builds up slowly to what happened, leaving us mostly in the dark until close to the end of the book. By the time he shows us what led to his time in the hospital, we understand how it is that this seemingly cool-headed man, this artist who writes hot but tight and collected, could end up here.
The writing in this book felt a little Kerouac-esque–not in a direct way, but in that . . . straightforward, confessional, “here’s some shit that I did and let me lay it bare for you” kind of way. In that impossibly-cool-but-approachable-as-fuck kind of way. In the same way that On the Road was a nonjudgmental record of some highly questionable shit, Mr. Ibrahim doesn’t spend pages flogging himself for his sins, though he admits them and admits fault. There are no excuses, either: the things that happened, happened, and there can still be life after the worst tragedies. There has to be.
The major focus of the book is not social justice, and yet it can’t be escaped, either: racism, ableism, a poor excuse for a rehabilitation system and the powerlessness of the patients under the care of the state seep through every line. Mr. Ibrahim is frank about his status as a black Muslim man caught up first in his Queens community and then in the justice system. This is as much a part of his identity as the artist, the Beatlemaniac, the hip dude with the snakeskin boots, the hospital Casanova.
The Hospital Always Wins might actually end up being my best read of the year. I highly recommend picking it up.