Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Bringing Out the Dead is a loving elegy to the souls and saints of Hell's Kitchen by first-time novelist Joe Connelly, a former EMS paramedic who spent nine years working the streets of Manhattan's West Side. This is not Disney's Times Square: Through Connelly's narrative we witness a gangster run over by one of his own garbage trucks, a teenager who gives birth without having known she was pregnant, a heroin dealer who falls two stories and is impaledaliveon an iron spike, and a tough gangbanger who becomes poignantly childlike as he bleeds to death on the sidewalk. In scenes like these and more, Connelly has compiled a record of everyday life during wartime and presented it in a quietly observant manner that reveals all without passing judgment.
A novel full of clearly autobiographical references, Bringing Out the Dead details the events of two days and nights in the life of Frank Pierce, a graveyard-shift paramedic haunted by the ghosts of his failures and sinking ever deeper into alcoholism. He wants to quit because his nightly patrols in his home neighborhood increasingly replay memories of rescues gone wrong: "The ghosts of my dreams had followed me out to the street and were now talking back." Yet the ghosts are addictive. Every night he sees Rose, an asthmatic girl he could not incubate quickly enough to save. She passes Frank's ambulance and winks "with those same eyes that stared at [him] so blankly a month before." And there is Mr. Burke, an elderly man whom Frank temporarily revived to the tune of Frank Sinatra's "September of My Years" ("not a good rhythmfor CPR, but what music to leave with!"), who appears on a street corner and whispers to Frank, "I lived for something and died for nothing." The whiskey in Frank's 3am java jolt does nothing to banish his ghostly visitors.
The ghosts are powerful reminders of the limits of Frank's lifesaving ability. After years on the job, he has learned that his "primary role is less about saving lives than bearing witness." His nocturnal sightings of these lives in limbo are the spectral manifestations of his doubts about the validity of his role. For what is the value of simply bearing witness night after night? What is the responsibility of someone present at the end? It's just not in the job description.
Frank is not the only one to wonder about the futility of his lifesaving efforts. His wife, Mona, left him once she realized that she loved him too much to bear witness as he drank himself to death. Mona was one of Frank's early rescueshe "met" her as she lay unconscious in an intersection, thrown from her motorcycle after she had challenged a station wagon for right of way. Later she would joke that meeting Frank "was like getting hit by a truck," and her exit from his downward-spiraling life has much the same effect on him.
I needed a drink so bad my hands were biting my pockets, my teeth formed fists in my mouth. Drinking used to help me over the bad nights, but since Mona went they were all bad. The one good thing about her going was it left a pain so strong it beat out everything else. Mona owned my mornings the way Rose owned my nights. I had only to start the process with a drink and a quick reprise of the day we parted and then sit back and watch her run the other ghosts out of town.
Frank's struggles with alcoholism and the responsibility he feels for those he cannot save take a heavy toll, and by the end of the book, he is visibly sick and has quit his job twice. But there is little doubt he'll be back the next day; his addiction is the job. The sheer volume of emergencies he attends is numbing, so much so that it is difficult to maintain a sense of which event happened on which night. Frank's days and nights overlap, and the reader is strung along and strung out with him.
Bringing Out the Dead chillingly portrays the burden a paramedic endures each time he answers a call, measured, in this case, in bodies and fifths. Connelly approaches his often grisly subject with lyricism and painfully honest imagery that is certain to haunt readers much as Frank Pierce is haunted by his ghosts.
New York Times Book Review
[A] stunning first novel....vigorous rhythms.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As depicted in this strong and literate debut, burnt-out paramedic Frank Pierce spends dark, death-filled nights behind the wheel of an ambulance in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, where he grew up, fighting chaos in his soul as perverse as the mayhem surrounding him. Scarred by a failed marriage and worn down by the hopelessness of his daily rounds of heart attacks, overdoses and crazies seeking attention, Frank has brought his drinking habit onto the job. But he is unable to blot out the memory of Rose, a young asthmatic who died in his care and now appears to him on various street corners. The ghosts of his own past -- his unhappy parents and ex-wife, his childhood playmates, now drunks and druggies -- and the death of his aspirations appear to him at every turn in the neighborhood.. When Patrick Burke, a cardiac-arrest victim unwillingly on life support, begins to haunt him, too, Frank struggles to find some sanity in a harmful job he seems unable to quit.
Connelly brings an air of authenticity to his rendering of this marginal world, and his compassion for its miserable and impoverished denizens is almost palpable. He deftly renders the frantic but deadpan tension and the black humor of a paramedic's job and of the ER personnel in Our Lady of Mercy hospital, called Misery by everyone. If Frank's voice, plangent with exhaustion, despair and grief, and the circumstances of his disintegrating life are unremittingly depressing, one does not doubt the accuracy of the world that Connelly, who himself was a paramedic, creates with such bleak intensity.
Campbell Scott offers a weak performance of this lifeless tale of a troubled paramedic haunted by the memories of patients who have died in his care. Connelly administers a heavy dose of nihilism by depicting Frank Pierce as a man trapped in a meaningless routine of saving the lives of New York City's hopeless cases who are destined to destroy themselves. Scott's melancholy tone compounds the listlessness of the story. His colorful characterizations of Pierce's ambulance partners and slick-talking inner-city inhabitants present a taste of life on the streets, but this can't make up for the program's overall weakness.Mark P. Tierney, Charles Cty. Pub. Schs., Waldorf, MD
NY Times Book Review
[A] stunning first novel....vigorous rhythms.
Read an Excerpt
I have done CPR in grand ballrooms on Park Avenue and in third-floor dance halls uptown. On Park they stand tall black panels around you to shield the dancers from an unpleasant view, while the band keeps up their spirits with songs like "Put on a Happy Face." Uptown the music never breaks and the dancers' legs whirl around you like a carnival ride. I've worked on the floors of some of the finest East Side restaurants, serenaded by violins while the man at the table next to me cut into his prime rib, and I have worked under the gory fluorescence of basement diners where taxi drivers can order, eat, and be back on the road in ten minutes. I've watched Broadway shows from the front row, kung fu pornography from Times Square balconies. I once brought a bartender back to life on the top of his bar while Irish dance music played. The patrons moved over for us, but no one stopped drinking.
One of my first cardiac arrests was in the Graceland Ballroom. I'd been there the Friday night before, to pick up a young man shot in the head, but this was Sunday afternoon, when families come from all over the city to talk and dance. A salsa band was playing, and the crowd of dancers made a path for us without losing a beat. The man lay dead in the middle of the floor, dead but not lifeless, because nothing could be lifeless in a room so full of laughter and dancing and music that sounded off your heart. We had a backup unit behind us and my partner and I moved perfectly--intubated with an epinephrine on board in twenty seconds. I took over CPR, my hands rising and falling into the rhythm of the music and the dancers' feet stepping nimbly around us to the salsa beat, a pulse of life. On themonitor I watched my compressions become perfect beats, and when I took my hands away the beats continued. "He has a pulse," I shouted, and stuck my thumb up in the air. The man started breathing on his own, and as we pulled the stretcher out the crowd cheered and slapped us on the back and the dancers filled in behind.
Walking from that room I was blessed by life. I had purpose for the first time and it carried me through those early wild years. Only much later did that beat begin to fade, and only recently did it disappear, leaving a cold stone in its place.
Larry had been on the phone ten minutes, and my knees felt as if I'd just spent an hour in a confessional. I had to admit that Burke looked better. The blue was gone from his cheeks, and the broken vessels in his nose had turned a familiar red. He wasn't that old really, barely sixty. I noticed beats on the monitor, too wide to carry a pulse, but they were gathering speed. I pumped on and listened to Sinatra sing of the brown leaves falling down. When I looked up again the beats had tightened. I stopped and found a weak pulse in his neck, which soon became a strong pulse at the wrist. I sat on the bed. His brain was dead; I was pretty sure of that. I checked his pupils; they were fixed in place, but his heart was beating like a young man's. Larry came in.
"It's okay, Frank. We can call it. Eighty-three."
"No we can't," I said. "He's got a pulse."
The daughter looked up. "Is he going to be all right?"
"His heart's beating." I didn't say that he would never wake up and that his heart would beat on as long as machines pumped in food and oxygen--that I was just acting on orders.
The news of Mr. Burke's recovery spread quickly, and soon the living room was full of crying, smiling faces. The backup unit arrived with a longboard and the two EMTs helped us strap the old man in. Larry and I packed up the
The stairway was tight and it took some time to get down; at each turn we had to tilt the board and pass it hand to hand over the railings, all the time fighting to keep the airway tube in place. The daughter led our procession, glaring at the faces that peered out from every door. When we reached the bottom she waved her arms at the people still sitting on the stoop--"Get out, get out"--pushing the ones on the top until the crowd moved and split, gathering on each side of the front gate to watch us bear Mr. Burke down the last six steps.
At the back doors to the ambulance I felt the rain start. I looked up to where the clouds had moved under the moon, and in the fifth-floor window I saw Mr. Burke standing, watching the proceedings. The light seemed to go through him, his body too thin to stop it, but he felt more real to me than the man strapped to the board, the eyes unblinking in the rain. I held my breath and bent over, waiting for the feeling to pass. When I looked up again, Mrs. Burke had taken his place. She was holding a suit and a pair of shoes; she reached up her arm and the light went off. "Let's go, Frank," Larry said, and together we loaded Burke's body into the back.
There is an old woman named Doris who for years has been wandering the streets of Times Square. She carries all her belongings with her in two tattered canvas bags, and she sleeps in a box next to the playground in Clinton Park. She walks most of the day and night, her bags held just inches above the street, her head down, speaking to the passing ground in bitter tones. She seems to hate everything, but most of all she hates ambulances, for every ambulance she sees is the one that took her daughter away. If I park long enough in the area of Forty-fifth Street and Seventh Avenue, inevitably I'll hear a pounding on the back doors and Doris calling, "Marie, Marie, it's Mama. I'm going to get you out." Then she walks around to the front. "You've got my daughter; she's in there," she'll say. "You give her back." The first few times I saw her, I tried talking to her, but her hatred was uncompromising, exhaustive, a mother facing her child's killers for the first time. "You give her back," she yells, picking up her bags to follow as I drive away.