On Carpentry is dually a comedy and tragedy about a plague of pancreatic cancer in the fictional town of Carbondale, Arkansas, centering specifically on a group of protagonists suffering from the disease and the doctor who, it is eventually revealed, induced the outbreak. Dr. Elmer Esau Dvorak III lost his sister to a blood disease. It drove him to recovery, drove him to medical school, drove him to drugs, then drove him functionally insane. Upon his return to Carbondale, a pancreatic cancer outbreak struck the town, a full one thousand cases. The more clairvoyant amongst the citizens might have seen the plague coming—the town’s street design told the story, had those roads been the constellation lines between stars, of the tripartite battle between Hercules, Hydra, and Cancer itself.
Under the cope of those asphalt constellations, Audrey L. Elliot deals with her cancer along with the loneliness of late middle age. Dennis Herriot deals with his cancer along with the prospect of leaving an already damaged family behind. And Constance Ogden deals with hers while negotiating through a relationship that should be an outlet and source of strength. But it isn’t an outlet. It isn’t a source of strength. And cancer doesn’t leave much room to maneuver. The experience of each character is developed through a series of studies, confessions, and stories, until the loose association of each becomes far stronger, with devastating results. Interspersed throughout the tale is a continuous rumination on the death of a woman named Stella, revealed in the novel’s final section to be the lost love of the errant doctor. Like all Southern stories, the novel is replete with crazy old ladies, renegade street ministers, and frustrated lemonade salesmen. It attempts to parse out the intricate range of emotions experienced through loss, frustrated desire, and the knowledge of impending death.