Monday, June 23, 2008

Bringing Out the Dead - A review

Bringing Out the Dead by Joe Connelly.

For reference, The Nicholas Cage movie of the same title was based on this novel. I don't know how they compare, because I never saw the movie.

Bringing Out The Dead is an exciting, if flawed, novel: A series of semi-hallucinatory, caffeine and booze fueled slice-of-life vignettes about a burnt out ambulance driver suffering agonies of guilt because he wasn't able to save a young girl's life. As a result of his failure, he sees her ghost everywhere.

Bringing Out The Dead is a sort of hymn to the ongoing chaos and organic mess of the world. The ambulance drivers do furious battle with accidents and biological malfunction, but ultimately seem to have little effect. The protagonist cruises through the novel looking for a good day, a day when he saves somebody's life, because there are too many days when he doesn't. The novel starts spectacularly, with the protagonist and his partner furiously trying to resuscitate a heart attack victim.

The wicked humor of the ambulance-vignettes is both painful and exhilarating, and descriptions of the chaos of an ambulance trip, street crazies, and the effects of life saving drugs on the body are stellar. This novel is frightening because it has the handi-cam patina of reality television. There's a staccato texture to the prose that makes you think of war reporting. You imagine your own body lying unconscious on the concrete or in your bedroom. You want the person who comes to save you to be fired up, hopeful, an ambulance saint. Not overworked, disillusioned, seeing ghosts and grasping at superstitions.

That said, I though Bringing Out the Dead ended on a wishy washy note. The narrator is chronically drifty and manic depressive. He makes a lot of his own problems. Descriptions of his personal history do not arouse sympathy or create a connection with the reader, and the book is just sort of clumsy overall when it comes to personal events. The descriptions of ambulance workers trying to save lives, and the late night activity in the hospital emergency rooms of the hospital, ultimately have more character than the character describing them, and because of this I failed to care much about the rest of the novel.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

No comments: