Bringing Out the Dead

by Joe Connelly

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

1998, 271 pages


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The Dead of Night

Reviewed by Charles Smyth

 

After five years as a paramedic in New York City, there isn't much Frank Pierce hasn't seen, but there's plenty he'd like to forget. Pierce works out of Our Lady of Mercy hospital, 56th Street between 9th and 10th avenues in Manhattan. "Those who worked there, or were unfortunate enough to be treated there, called it Our Lady of Misery, or simply Misery." Working mostly in Hell's Kitchen, the neighborhood where he was born, Pierce can no longer "pass a building that didn't hold the spirit of something: the eyes of an unloved corpse, the screams for some loved one."

Although the memory's fading, Pierce can still remember how a good call used to make him feel. "Saving someone's life is like falling in love, the best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks, afterward, you walk the streets making infinite whatever you see. Time slows and stretches forward and you wonder if you've become immortal, as if you saved your own life as well."

Bringing Out The Dead, a first novel by Joe Connelly, is the gripping, often harrowing account of 48 hours in Frank Pierce's life. Connelly, himself a New York paramedic for nine years, is unsparing in authentic detail. Indeed, the book is almost a crash course in emergency medicine. You can learn how to hook up an IV line, shock a heart back to life, or intubate a cardiac arrest: "I pulled out the long steel laryngoscope blade and inserted in into his mouth. Using it like a lever, I lifted the tongue up until I found the white vocal cords, like Roman columns, and I grabbed the thick plastic tube and carefully passed it through those gates, through the dark cartilage of the trachea, into the branched entrance of the lungs. I secured it, hooked the bag up to the tube, and pumped it hard."

At the end of their shift, Pierce and the other graveyard medics usually head up to the Bronx for the "medicaholics morning support group." These sessions meet at the Blarney Moon, the only Irish bar in the South Bronx, which "had been getting cops drunk for over three decades." Now, it was the only occupied building on the block, "but happy hour still started at seven a.m. and the seats were always filled by eight."

Booze isn't the only relief for Pierce. Humor -- mostly black -- helps, too. Here he's talking to the daughter of a cardiac arrest he'd revived and brought to the emergency room at Misery.

"The emergency room doors opened and closed. Burke's daughter appeared, standing only a few feet away, a cold spirit, white and shivering in her brother's jacket. I offered a cigarette.

"You shouldn't smoke," she said, and took one.

"It's okay. They're prescription. For nerves."

"You should get another doctor."

"It works better with a little whiskey."

"That's my brother's cure. He's passed out inside."

"See what I mean?"

Later, she asks him:

"How long you been doing this?"

"Five years."

"Wow, you must have seen some things, huh? So I gotta ask you -- what's the worst thing you ever seen?"

"Lima beans on a pizza."

"God, that's bad."

"I don't like to talk about it."

This is New York and Pierce works the streets at night, so he comes across all kinds of characters on the job. A memorable one, Reverend Scythe, likes to preach at fires. At one blaze, Scythe was wearing an "oversize helmet that swung back and forth over his skull like a church bell," which the firemen had given him because no fireman had ever died in a fire at which Scythe preached. After all the trucks had left, he addressed the thinning crowd. "Go on home, sinners, ignore the last call. Go back to your opium pipes and whiskey bottles, back to your child pornography and gay marriages. Back to your slot machines, ribbed condoms, Mexican divorces, your sex clubs and martinis. Back to your hot-oil wrestling, Washington lobbying, organ donation. The list is long, but it's all written down -- your state-subsidized brothels, liposuction, Oriental cooking. Add it up, you know what it spells: f-i-r-e." It's a list worthy of Don DeLillo.

After nine years as a medic, Connelly decided to become a doctor and enrolled in pre-med courses at Columbia University. He also took a writing course taught by Colin Harrison, a deputy editor of Harper's magazine. He showed Harrison 60 pages he'd written, and Harrison told him he was a writer and that he had to forget about being a doctor and write every day. A year later, Connelly submitted the manuscript for Bringing Out the Dead to an editor at Knopf who had been in his writing class. A year after that, his rewrite was ready for publication.

Connelly has said that Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried inspired and challenged him and "showed me how to tell a war story." Indeed, both books are war stories -- O'Brien fought in Vietnam, Connelly battled death in the streets of New York -- and they have in common the emotional power that comes from firsthand experience. As O'Brien did with soldiers in war, Connelly has done with big-city paramedics: given us a close-up, personal look at a dangerous, thrilling, and terrifying world.

A film based on the book is slated for release this fall. Producer Scott Rudin said he would do the picture only if he could get Martin Scorsese as director. Scorsese agreed to direct only if he could get Nicolas Cage to play Frank Pierce. Rudin got Scorsese, Scorsese got Cage (whose haunted intensity seems tailor-made for Pierce), and we'll get one of the year's best movies. But my advice is, don't wait for the onscreen version; Bringing Out the Dead is one hell of a read. | February 1999

 

Charles Smyth is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Seattle.