The Resurrectionist by Jack O'Connell

Chris Barsanti

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.

The Resurrectionist

Publisher: Algonquin
ISBN: 1565125762
Author: Jack O'Connell
Price: $24.95
Length: 320
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-04
"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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.