Houman Barekat

A magnificent set of dentures still leaves little to smile about

After undergoing prolonged cosmetic dentistry, 50-year-old John Patrick Higgins reluctantly acknowledges that he’ll never be the stylish man about town of his dreams

John Patrick Higgins.

John Patrick Higgins is unhappy about the state of his mouth. His teeth resemble ‘broken biscuits’, a ‘pub piano’, ‘an abandoned quarry’ and ‘Neolithic stones. It’s all I can do to keep druids from camping out on my tongue each solstice.’ So he invests in a series of expensive interventions. He has seven gnashers removed, followed by three root canals, and acquires a natty set of dentures. They feel a bit weird at first (‘it’s like having an internal beak’), but ‘I look like the actor playing me in a Hallmark movie of my life.’

In this slim, refreshingly unpretentious memoir, Higgins, a middle-aged English filmmaker living in Belfast, chronicles his emotions as he undergoes successive rounds of treatment. He laments his pathetic passivity in the face of medical expertise; his helplessness in the dentist’s chair, where he communicates only in ‘sudden, panicky lurches’; and his compulsive tendency to engage in ingratiating patter with the dentist, which he attributes to survival strategies honed in childhood. (‘The bullies don’t beat up the funny kid’.)

There are mishaps along the way. After being fitted with a temporary set of false teeth, he goes home and eats a Pot Noodle, and the turmeric in it wreaks havoc:

My brilliant, arctic smile was now a vibrant yellow, banana Nesquik yellow, the yellow of an Eighties heavy metal drummer’s headband… Why hadn’t the dentist warned me? Why had he not specifically warned me not to eat Pot Noodles?’

Higgins has a stand-up comedian’s eye for banal details, musing on, among other things, the terrible music at the surgery (the radio is tuned to a station called Cool FM, which plays hits by Dido and Nickelback) and the stinginess of motion sensors in toilet cubicles, which plunge him into darkness before he’s finished his business – ‘a recipe for sallow Lino and spending on bleach what you save on lightbulbs’.

Of course, it’s not really about his teeth as such, but what they represent. Higgins sees the deterioration of his ‘oral furniture’ as a harbinger: ‘The mouldering that comes before the grave.’ ‘I’m only 50,’ he pleads. ‘Dentures belong on the bedside cabinet of a snoring grandpa with a David Baldacci novel steepling on his chest. That’s not me. I’m a stylish man about town.’ On his way home from one appointment, he observes a group of young workmen on a building site, and has a bleak epiphany: ‘I sank with the sadness of a dropped accordion… I’d seen my replacements and realised I was no longer fit for purpose. The pearliest smile in the world couldn’t change that.’