He Sees Dead People
Jonah Sees Ghosts begins, appropriately enough, with a death, which first-time novelist Mark J. Sullivan III, a musician living in Washington, DC, describes in visceral detail. “Filled with several lunchtime martinis and fumbling with the tape deck” of his Porsche convertible, Dan Hart drives his car into a gully and crashes through the windshield. “He bled to death and waited three days for discovery.”
The word “waited” sounds pretty active for a dead man, and sure enough, Dan Hart becomes a ghost, drawn reluctantly back into the real world by his son, Jonah. More than his gruesome death, Dan Hart’s absence from his son’s life gives Jonah some unusual powers. For one, as the title clearly states, Jonah sees ghosts—the stray souls wandering the earth, confused and usually lacking any self-awareness. He can also see the ghosts of body parts: at a hardware store, he is attacked by a battalion of fingers lost to circular saws.
Second, Jonah can “dream travel.” As he enters adolescence—the bulk of the novel takes place between his fifteenth and sixteenth birthday—he discovers that he can detach from his body during sleep and float around his neighborhood. During these nocturnal missions, everything becomes overwhelmingly interesting; he flies in and out of Coke cans for what seems like hours and examines colonies of ants that look like cars. Jonah also peeks in on classmates and follows the threads of their lives into the future: Sandra will become a judge and marry a man who adores her, but Kim will grow ever lonelier until she swallows 43 sleeping pills in a library bathroom in graduate school.
These supernatural elements are obvious and intriguing allegories for the confusion of adolescence, but Sullivan doesn’t seem to have completely thought out the physics and metaphysics of his afterlife, nor has he decided how he wants readers to view the specters. When he claims “Ghosts were confusing because there didn’t seem to be any rules governing their behavior,” it almost sounds like an authorial disclaimer rather than a statement of teenage frustration.
Jonah is deeply frightened by all the ghosts he sees, not just a little scared but pants- wetting terrified. Yet its difficult to see what’s so threatening about them. Few seem to realize Jonah can see them; fewer still seem hostile. Furthermore, Sullivan continually disarms whatever scariness or creepiness the ghosts might summon. When Jonah sees the ghost of a swimmer standing over a waterfall, half her face obliterated by a gunshot wound, the scene is palpably eerie with her vague otherworldly intentions toward the living—until she smiles and winks at him.
That wink is also Sullivan’s wink: these ghosts are mostly here for comic relief, jokey set pieces that serve no other purpose than to comment knowingly and self-consciously on Jonah’s progressing adolescence. Ultimately, the ghosts here are closer to the imagined souls of Six Feet Under than to the confused, angry spirits in The Sixth Sense.
More successfully executed are Jonah’s prophetic night dreams. Sullivan wisely withholds the specifics about this activity, which lends it a mystery the ghosts themselves lack. It also gives Sullivan an opportunity to unhinge his prose from everyday reality and let it float as Jonah does: “The wood of the house grew brittle beneath paint that was turning to dust, root-bound houseplants strained against clay pots, electricity flowed within coated wire in a rush of positive and negative ions. It was all visible and, without the limitations of his physical body, Jonah found it comprehensible.”
Unfortunately, the more Jonah dream travels, the more tiresome these episodes become. Increasingly, they reveal little more than Jonah’s own detachment from life and begin to feel like drug-induced hallucinations, and when Sullivan starts breaking them up by placing only one paragraph per page, it veers dangerously close to gimmickry.
Even more frightening and disconcerting than either of Jonah’s supernatural abilities are his attempts to balance them with the pressures of his “aggressively autodidactic” mother and the constricting social codes of his adolescent world. A film editor and compulsive organizer, Susan Hart believes her son’s problems can be solved by talking about them as adults and friends. She thinks questions like “Is there something you’d like to tell me, Jonah?” are effective conversation starters and that continuous household projects like building bookshelves and cabinets together will keep her son out of trouble. Sullivan portrays her concern and growing helplessness toward Jonah with tenderness and empathy, and the dynamic between mother and son imbues the novel with a sense of sad, inescapable reality.
Sullivan also captures adolescence in all its sweet horror and confusion. To all outward appearances, Jonah is a spaz—a small, awkward boy whose intelligence and imagination are readily apparent to anyone he talks to. But his odd behavior and his intense introversion, which are responses to the distracting ghosts and his constant dream travels, alienates his friends and classmates and gives him the outsider status that so many teenagers fear. The teenage concerns are very real, but their causes are not the normal causes.
When Sullivan lets Jonah interact with characters his own age, the novel picks up considerably, anchored in the real and recognizable—the mundane rather than the otherworldly. When Jonah and Sarah have their second date, he invites her over to watch 9 1/2 Weeks, which, his friend Ross assures him, will help him score. Watching this cartoonish version of adult sexuality, they become tense and distracted, hugging opposite ends of the couch, and the date goes from awkward to disastrous.
As the scene ends, however, the ghosts of two elderly women distract Jonah’s attention from Sara and the tone shifts from teenage tragicomedy to ghoulish existentialism. This change is unfortunate: the overwhelming embarrassment of being a teenage boy is far more frightening and uncomfortable than any ghostly visage.
Sullivan is too caught up in rendering the supernatural elements of Jonah Sees Ghosts to see that the real story lies with Jonah himself and his relationships with the living, not the dead. When he indulges all the ghosts who demand the attention of both Jonah and the reader, the novel becomes less interesting and more frustrating. But when Sullivan turns Jonah loose with his mother or his friends or even strangers, when the novel keeps its feet firmly planted on the ground, when it confronts this life instead of what comes after, it feels remarkably alive.