By Jack O'Connell
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 304 pp., $24.95
A writer with a growing cult of fans, Worcester's Jack O'Connell has set all four of his previous books in the same decaying fictional city of Quinsigamond, Mass., and combined a variety of genre elements - noir thriller, science fiction, adventure, horror, and fantasy. His latest is perhaps his strangest book yet, nearly impossible to classify, even difficult to describe, and highlights the imaginative feats and inherent challenges in the recent trend of genre-blending fiction.
A series of intersecting narratives drives "The Resurrectionist." Sweeney used to be a successful Cleveland druggist until his 6-year-old son, Danny, suffered severe head trauma in an accident and fell into a coma; six months later Sweeney's wife committed suicide, and now he has moved Danny to the outskirts of Quinsigamond, to the gothic, mausoleum-like Peck Clinic, known around the world for providing the best long-term care for patients in comas or persistent vegetative states. Though the clinic has successfully aroused only two "sleepers" in its history, Sweeney keeps a daily bedside vigil on the remote chance that his son might recover. Ever wavering between panic and rage from the trauma in his life, he takes a job on the third shift dispensing meds from the clinic's pharmacy, a.k.a. "the vault," and one of the many tensions in the novel is when and how Sweeney, a ticking time bomb, will explode.
Several candidates seem likely to set him off, chief among them the clinic's own Dr. Frankenstein, W. Micah Peck, a mad genius who has successfully removed and replanted the brain parts of thousands of reptiles and mammals and written some of the most highly controversial papers in the emerging field of neuro-transplantation. Secretly, he has been collecting aborted fetuses on the black market and plans to harvest their cells for his experiments. You can almost hear the pipe organ playing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor as Peck zeroes in on his next research subject, none other than the clinic's newest arrival, Danny.
Dr. Peck has two assistants in the task. His lovely daughter, Alice, with whom he shares a creepy, borderline-incestuous relationship, serves as his apologist and gal Friday until she finds herself falling for Sweeney. And outside, on the blighted margins of Quinsigamond, roams the doctor's fetus supplier, a violent, impetuous biker named Spider, who lives in an abandoned prosthetics factory. O'Connell's gift for building tension within a scene is equaled by his ability to create wonderfully dark and elaborate stage sets upon which to play out his dramas. The Peck Clinic with its "maze of cavernous rooms and bad lighting and narrow, vertigo-inducing corridors" is mirrored by the former factory, whose "layout followed the logic of the human body itself: feet and legs were manufactured on the first floor; testicles and hips on the second; hands, arms, elbows and shoulders on the third," and on up to the top of the skull.
"The Resurrectionist" is a novel about the body and the extent to which science, the modern-day magic, can or should correct the body's shortcomings and failures. Interspersed with Sweeney's, Dr. Peck's, and Spider's stories is a fourth narrative, presented in the form of a serialized comic book called "Limbo" that Sweeney reads to his comatose son. Danny had once been a great fan of "Limbo" and its cast of traveling circus freaks of old Bohemia: the fat lady, the human skeleton, the Siamese twins, the hermaphrodite, and especially Bruno, the patriarchal strongman, and Chick, the boy with the beaked mouth and coat of feathers. Chick's only escape from earthly oppression is into "Limbo," where "all the rules and logic . . . were thrown out and replaced by a realm that was even more surreal and difficult to follow."
At times this novel can feel too much like Limbo: not quite a father-son story about loss and recovery and expiation of guilt, nor a gothic thriller about a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein out to push boundaries of medical ethics, nor the Great American Biker Novel or serial comic about circus freaks in exile. Genre blending has become increasingly in vogue thanks in part to the rise of graphic novels and the championing of genre by influential writers such as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, but O'Connell is wilder, edgier, more far-ranging and extravagant than his fellow genre-jumpers. In "The Resurrectionist" the worlds do eventually come together. How much as a reader you're satisfied with the results depends on how you like your genres: separate and distinct or fused together like Frankenstein's monster.
Porter Shreve's third novel, "When the White House Was Ours," is due out in September.