I Lucifer established Glen Duncan as a writer “up there in the literary stratosphere with Martin Amis or T. C. Boyle” (Washington Post). Now with Death of an Ordinary Man, Duncan continues his penetrating and innovative exploration of the supernatural with a novel that is far and away his most powerful and accomplished yet.
Nathan Clark’s gravestone offers a short and hopeful summary: At rest. But Nathan is not at rest, and knows he won’t be until he finds out why he died. How has he come to hover over his own funeral, a spectral spectator to the grief of his family and friends? Privy now to their innermost thoughts and feelings confessions that are raw, brutal, and unexpected Nathan spends the day of his wake getting to know the living as he has never known them before: His father struggles with a legacy of family tragedy; his wife and best friend with the baggage of a doomed affair; his older
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Death of an Ordinary ManA Novel
By Glen Duncan
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Glen Duncan
All right reserved.
Everything's all right, Nathan thought. Those first mornings in foreign hotels you opened your eyes and knew nothing: where you were, how you'd got there, who you were, even. You could be anyone.
Like that, but without the hotel.
It was neither dark nor light but if he lifted his hand in front of his face he wouldn't be able to see it. Whatever was here in potentia - he trawled through his store of waiting rooms, the joyless accrual of plastic chairs and out-of-date magazines - kept promising to become actual, but at the last minute didn't, quite. He thought of all the conversations about dreams he'd had with Cheryl, Adrian, the kids, how difficult this was going to be to describe to them when he got back.
Soon the next thing would happen. He wasn't afraid. Everything was all right because when he summoned it a memory came through of that morning in the kitchen at the old house on Roseberry Road, years ago. Adrian's boiler had croaked and he'd had to come round to theirs for a shower. Summer holidays, the kids all at home. Adrian, hangover notwithstanding, had made everyone a huge cooked breakfast. Cheryl had sat towel-turbanned with her feet up, reading bits out of the paper. How old had Luke been then? Ten?Gina going on eight. Lois four, with the serious face and look of not enough sleep. Bacon, coffee, toast. Afterwards sun-shafts of fagsmoke and the good feeling of surrendering the day. His dad had come round, lonely, looking for shared flesh and blood, poor old bugger, and for once it had been okay, love had stretched itself, brought him into the warmth. Ade made him a bacon sandwich and later Cheryl gave him a haircut, in which spectacle the kids took a peculiar delight, Frank sitting draped in a bedsheet and holding a hand mirror very seriously.
Nathan had this at his disposal, to be produced on demand. Then the next thing would happen. He'd have to find a way of describing all this to Cheryl when he got back.
Loop completed. Realisation: he'd had these thoughts before.
Now he was back at the starting point. The real starting point.
Something was wrong.
You started off knowing something was wrong, but time passed and you started thinking everything was all right. Even now, if you let yourself drift ...
He could feel himself approaching it again, the untroubled state. Slip into it and the loop would have him. How many times already? Didn't bear thinking about.
No way out. Except - intuition precise and fierce as a paper cut - to remember the thing immediately before this. The last footprint would be the first in the trail leading all the way back. Immediately before this was ... Immediately before this ...
But he was close enough to everything's all right for a little of it to reach out and pass into him like the first swallow of Scotch in the evening. Warmth, that loosening, things not mattering. Have another. Afore ye go, as the label said.
It almost seduced. He flirted with letting it take him (now it had the feel of Cheryl's arms coming up round him and the kids laughing), held the memory of that morning ready, felt sure he had neither the strength nor the inclination to resist - but at the last moment wrenched himself away, thinking that even if he did there was no knowing what-
He'd seen heads in silhouette, shrieking halogens, three doctors in peppermint green smeared with blood working like insects.
Then something had exploded from his chest and skull, a double birth of pure light followed by total darkness.
Silence in himself. He didn't want anything, only not to have to think. You could make your mind all but blank. You could roll up the incline right to the edge from which your identity, your self, your consciousness, you, could sheer off into the void, atomised. But sooner or later you rolled back. To everything you didn't want. He had an image of a black jewel in someone's held out palm. Your birthright. Don't you want it?
Without knowing he'd been holding on to anything, Nathan let go.
As a child, Luke had said to him, Dad, if you're in a lift and the cables snap, what about if you manage to jump up in the air just before the lift hits the ground? Wouldn't you be all right?
Light coalesced, below and to the left. Down and to the left. Which way do your eyes go when you're lying? Not a lift shaft but a curved chute. One of Luke's wormholes? A torque of colour. Beautiful. The reason you couldn't travel faster than the speed of light was because you'd ... Your mass would ...
Implosion threatened, or some irreversible fragmentation. He tried sheer will as a brake and found to his surprise that it worked. He slowed. Stopped. Chance to think. Whether he really wanted to do this.
The luminescence dilated - pink in there, pale yellow, flecks of amethyst and aquamarine - then contracted, shrank or pulled away from him. Bye.
You go through at its pace or not at all. Of course. If you want the way back.
He wasn't prepared for the new rate of fall, nor the surge of brilliance at the approaching core; but there was no stopping this time.
Last thoughts flickered, distraction from the one thought that this would annihilate him: This is nowhere. Nothing. Something. Will I remember when I wake-
Then the light engulfed him and sped him on towards darkness.
When he emerged the people he knew stood below him in negligible rain round a freshly dug grave: Cheryl, Luke, Gina, Adrian. His father. A handful of others. Nearby, a bulbous conifer tilted like a giant microphone awaiting a quote from the sky. Raindrops scurried over the coffin's camber, beaded its edge, dripped into the cavity below.
The body goes back to dust, his father had told him, in the after-Mass-and-three-whiskies voice, but the soul is immortal. As a boy he'd imagined his soul as a wisp of vapour flickering in his chest. At death it would curl from him to slalom up towards Heaven or to be sucked down towards Hell.
Whereas in fact.
Whereas in fact what?
Wait. Calm. List the facts. This is St Xavier's. Exeter. Everyone. A grave.
In spite of his injunction consciousness threatened to petrify, to reach a state from which nothing, surely nothing could follow. He started again.
St Xavier's. Exeter. Everyone.
When he was small he'd had a babysitter, Janice. At some point in the evening she'd tell him his parents weren't coming back. Ever. He always started off not believing her. They're at the pub with Aunty Maggie and Uncle Dave. But she'd shake her head. No, that was a lie. They weren't coming back. Ever. The familiarity of the ritual tortured him. The moment he most dreaded was when in his heart he believed her. They're never coming back. Janice wasn't satisfied until she'd brought him to tears. Then she'd tell him no, shshsh, it was just a game. Until the next babysitting, when the whole thing would start again.
He made himself take a moment, while the priest - Murray, whom he hadn't seen since Lois's christening - raised and lowered his arms like a tentatively worked marionette. This rain was the soft rain Cheryl said materialised around you rather than fell from the sky. He couldn't feel it. Knew it, but couldn't feel it.
Taking the moment was to let the obvious in. His funeral.
Best for now to accept what there was, suspend disbelief, assume that what appeared to be the case was in fact the case. Someone had said, the world is everything that is the case. Wittgenstein? One of Cheryl's favourite quotes, back in the days.
There was something close by he didn't want. He didn't know what it was, but panicking would bring it to him. Cheryl always said, if I'm on a machine you switch the fucking thing off, okay? No arsing about. He'd said the same, without her conviction. Never been able to lose the image of himself wide awake despite diagnosed brain death, watching in horror as the doctor reached for the switch and his loved ones bowed their heads. Don't turn it off! I'm still here!
Did you know, Gina'd said to him one day when she'd reached the age for the laconic delivery of such ideas as fact, if you die in your dream, you actually die in real life, in your sleep? Think about it: you never die in your dreams. Then one day you'll dream it, and that'll be you - snuffed it.
The deep habit of thought dictated that there must be someone, an authority he could consult. He sent out a query (to whom he wasn't sure) vague and giant, just ... What ...? Then listened as for the sound of a dropped stone hitting the bottom of a well.
Nothing. Or rather not quite nothing. Something was being withheld, he thought. To trip him into a mistake (there was a quick and suspicious way of thinking ready to work for him), to trick him into falling for it, whatever it was. So he wouldn't. He'd wait. Like treading water. You could go on for a long time but not for ever.
With babysitting Janice there was always a period of treating it as a joke they were both in on. He remembered the frailty of his laughter, the way it caught in his chest. Her careful cruelty and how he was childishly in love with her, white shins and that greasy blond bob. I'm going to marry Janice when I grow up. His dad had laughed. They're never coming back, Janice used to say, sitting forward, elbows on knees, long-nailed fingers loosely linked. Never ever.
Gina was in a black skirt and blouse and carried a bunch of irises by their stems, like a club. Luke still looked too young for a suit, for adulthood, would for years. Nathan imagined them all getting ready this morning, Cheryl dressing in silence. He'd loved the wideness of her stare at herself, applying make-up. He used to lie on the bed, watching. Haven't you got anything better to do? Nothing better than this, no. Then her eyes went sideways to look at him in the mirror, the little acknowledgement that she had this power.
Is there any history of mental illness in your family? Every now and again a form asked something like that and you wondered what it would be like, the psychotic uncle or schizophrenic dad. You ticked NO.
Now this. There'd been that phase of taking acid and mushrooms, two summers in the early Seventies with Adrian, then the mad dabble again in his first year at Goldsmiths, him and Cheryl wandering around Regent's Park looking for the zoo. Flashbacks? The deal was that years later out of nowhere hallucinations assaulted you.
In which case it would pass. In which case he could wait it out.
The classic progression was denial, anger, grief, acceptance. He'd read it somewhere. For the loss of someone, that was. Not for the loss of everyone.
It wasn't panic he was holding off. It was love. All of it with nowhere to go. The horror of this was in him, waiting to be let loose to drive him mad. The thing was to think about something else. Anything.
He'd never said one way or the other, burial or cremation, but there had been a conversation with Cheryl years back, before death had touched either of them. It's not the going into the ground, she'd said, it's the awful contrast, all that satin and silk with your bones and offal slopping around like a stew. He'd agreed: revolting; in the light of which he felt betrayed now, until he realised at the sight of his father standing with head bowed and hands thick that they'd done it for the old man out of sympathy. The Church. Fire whiffed of paganism, the old gods with their genitals and hangovers. Plus the problem of resurrection without a body to raise. Same with his mother's funeral, the insistence on laying her to rest. Cheryl had said: It's so he'll have a place he can go to talk to her. She'd said it as much for him, Nathan. At the time, he'd been thinking of his mother's corpse in the coffin, bed-sored elbows and heels reduced to their matters of meat and chemistry fact. The names of body parts - eyeball, liver, heart, tongue - had presented themselves with a new purity, and it had numbed him to think of his father kneeling with nasturtiums or tulips above ground while a few feet below the sluggish divorce of tissue from bone proceeded in soundproofed indifference.
They'd had Lois cremated. It hadn't needed discussion.
The memory brought closer whatever it was he didn't want. It loomed up and darkened everything like the shadow of a giant wave. He veered, wildly-
Never again, Cheryl, the shape of her. Feel air moving, bare feet on a rucked beach, sun-heat, fingers thawing, stone. All that. If this is-
He hauled himself away. But from 'all that' he'd got a sense, like a glimpse of a terrible army, of the questions, an infinite number, each with its attendant terrible answer. At the moment when in his heart he believed Janice, all the objects in the room, the room itself and the world outside shed an outer layer of disguise and revealed their collusion with her, with all of it, everything they'd told him there was really no need to be afraid of. Then shshsh and him lifted up hot-faced and sobbing onto her lap and her laughing and holding him to her which almost made it worth it to be that close because there suddenly was her white throat and the tiny gold cross-and-chain and the smell of her blouse and Wrigley's Doublemint.
He was a few feet above his mourners' heads, looking down. A couple of dozen people and the priest in white surplice and black stole. 'Hear our prayer O Lord and grant that the soul of your servant may ...' (That was the thing with Janice: you had to go through the agony, but then there was the bliss.) The shadow had gone but left the promise of its return. He forced himself to focus instead on the novelty of seeing them from this angle. Had he seen them like this before? Cheryl yes, from however many painting and decorating ladders, also a Gaudí spiral staircase in Barcelona. His father? Never. Adrian? Yes. Years ago, teenagers, him, Nathan, up a pear tree looking down between bright leaves and rough-skinned fruit, Adrian arriving below, back from the house with a pilfered and greenly glinting bottle of Gordon's gin. Now for the second time in his life he saw Adrian's double crown, twin points of growth from which the blond and of late grey hair grew in cropped whorls.
Horns, he thought, with affection and an unexpected stab of loss for the friendship. Thirty-five years. But the thought brought something else up, a flavour or smell he didn't want. With an effort he got himself away from it.
Gina's head he'd seen from above countless times, the first more than eighteen years ago, blood-slicked and mango'd by the forceps, the last, a week ago, when, him up on the garage roof in a square of sunlight for a reason he couldn't now remember, she came out to call him for lunch. He'd glanced down, and in the glance mistaken her for her mother; she had Cheryl's gold and brown colouring and as of that morning the same wedge haircut. He'd felt pride, then a pang of sadness, realising his mistake. Her face tilted up, one hand shading her eyes. It's on the table, going cold.
Excerpted from Death of an Ordinary Man by Glen Duncan Copyright © 2004 by Glen Duncan. Excerpted by permission.
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