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From Barnes & NobleBarnes & 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 impaled—alive—on 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 rescues—he "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.