Come to the Cabaret
“They rolled at an even speed past the foundries and the chemical plants, past acres of ghostly housing projects and antique tenements long gone dark. Eventually, they cut into the city proper and made for downtown, a Mardi Gras in perpetual decay, this crowded hive of clubs and bars, noodle dens and arcades, strip joints and chapels of the apocalypse, all of them announced in red and blue neon. To Sweeney it looked like the last nightmare. And it smelled like a third world circus—sweet and rancid and toxic.” —The Resurrectionist
There are pulp writers and then there are pulp authors. The difference is not so much one of quality, but rather of frequency and attitude. The pulp writer is a factory of story, a spewing and churning mill of incident and effect that shoots its product out into the world as fast as possible, sometimes more than one per year. The pulp author, on the other hand, is a slightly more rarified (or just plain slower) creature, disappearing into their darkened creative lair for two, three or more years at a time before displaying their work to the public. The writer can tend towards the repetitive—you would too, if you cranked out that much text. The author, meanwhile, has the time and patience to fine-tune the performance, even if in the end it’s a rougher and less smoothly-delivered product. In other words, it’s all about trade-offs.
For many years now, one of the finest American pulp authors has been Jack O’Connell, even though in about the last decade and a half, he’s only managed to produce about four novels. The trade-off that O’Connell’s fans have had to make with him is that they’re willing to put up with the irritatingly long wait between books (his last, Word Made Flesh, hit shelves back in 1999) in order to be able to better savor the dark treats that he had in store for them and had been taking the time to get just right.
From one book to the next, O’Connell limned the grotty corners of his imagined city, Quinsigamond, with a maleficent glee. A rust-belt New England city like has never existed, Quinsigamond could be all things to O’Connell’s stories and the perfect backdrop for his hardboiled stories of hard-luck dames and corrupted visionaries. The city was a baleful playground of Weimar decadence, NAFTA-era decline, and gang-haunted immigrant ghettos, where urban legends could sprout roots and become reality. In Quinsigamond’s retrograde ghostliness and industrial-punk malice, O’Connell turned an anthropologist’s eye to the rot and let it linger deliciously. As trade-offs went, it wasn’t so bad.
About nine years after the Jesuitical language murders of Word Made Flesh, O’Connell has produced a novel, The Resurrectionist, that should make readers happy he’s finally decided to get back to writing, but also wishing he hadn’t taken so much time getting to it. While the book is indeed set in Quinsigamond, it takes place on the town’s outskirts, a possibly direct sign from the author that he’s decided to move into different territory completely. O’Connell twists two stories around each other like knotted cord, and even though one is ostensibly set in the real world, it quickly becomes obvious that such distinctions are quickly meaningless.
In the first storyline, Sweeney appears at the Peck Clinic, a monstrosity of a family-run hospital for coma patients, hoping that they’ll take better care of his comatose young boy, Danny. The place seems almost comically spooky, with a visionary (meaning: mad) scion of the Peck family running the place and grotesque caricatures roaming the lonely halls; if one could see pictures of the clinic, they would never show the sun.
While Sweeney just seems to want the best for Danny, there are demons chasing him, and apparently a whole batch of new ones waiting at the Clinic, which seems to have plans for Danny that don’t involve making him better. In the second storyline, O’Connell inserts installments from the epic, tragic story of a band of traveling circus freaks in Old Bohemia (an invented Balkan/Eastern Europe country from earlier O’Connell novels); this turns out to actually be stories from the comic Limbo, a hugely popular series Danny had loved and which Sweeney stills reads to him as often as possible. The story of Limbo seems shockingly gothic for a hit comic (with requisite film, TV, and merchandise spin-offs, of course), but given that the supposedly real storyline quickly involves biker gangs, a nurse with witch-like powers, and a salamander who just might be magic, the line does seem to be a thin one.
The separation between the waking and dream world has always been porous in O’Connell’s fiction, but not like this. In his previous midnight-tinged fantasies, with most of the action taking place at night and involving highly obsessed people deeply engaged in their own minute plans far from the light of reason, it all seemed highly plausible. With each of those earlier novels delving far into their particularly subcultures (film nuts in Skin Palace, radio freaks in Wireless), O’Connell had a grounding for his garish plots that helped bring them somewhat into the light of human feasibility. But with The Resurrectionist, he’s left the story unmoored, and it drifts. There are sharp flashes here and there, of course: The high melodrama of the sadistic title character, a Lazarus-like circus showman in the Limbo comics; the tired-out Clinic administrator who sighs to Sweeney, “I wish you smoked ... It was better when people smoked together.”
But while there’s a plenitude of treasures to be found here, the rapid-fire shuffling of genre staples and impenetrable thicket of influences (Steinbeck to Gaiman to Chabon to Chandler to Lynch) overload the story well before it huffs to a conclusion. Almost as a tease, the novel glances into the author’s old stomping grounds of Quinsigamond and the grand old dirty environs of Bangkok Park where “bloody money and rough sex could purchase any commodity.” Besotted on Kafka-esque absurdity and Herbert Asbury-like carnivals of crime, O’Connell is a pulp author of the first order, but it’s possible that it’s time for him to become a little more of a pulp writer.