Safe in Heaven Dead
by Samuel Ligon
Published by HarperCollins
245 pages, 2003
The Best Miserable Book of the Year
Reviewed by David Abrams
The main character in Samuel Ligon's novel Safe in Heaven Dead is killed in the first sentence. Robert Elgin died on the street, knocked down and run over by a Second Avenue bus while pursuing a woman he thought he could not live without. From there, the novel jumps back several months to gradually reveal the paths leading to Elgin's grim fate.
Like the movies American Beauty and Sunset Boulevard, tales told by dead men, Safe in Heaven Dead grabs us by the hair and doesn't let go until the final page, even though we know how everything will turn out.
Ligon jumps out of the starting gate like a sweat-drenched thoroughbred with this, his first novel which drives forward with relentless energy. If Safe in Heaven Dead is any indication, Ligon has a long, promising career ahead of him as an author of complex thrillers that raise questions of morality as much as they do the reader's pulse.
The novel takes its title from Jack Kerouac's poem "211th Chorus," which concludes with
I wish I was free
Elgin, a labor negotiator for Oakland County, Michigan, tries to escape the meat wheel when his comfortable suburban life starts to collapse around him. First, he's pressured into cutting a corrupt deal with a local politician who has an eye on the governor's mansion. Then, his five-year-old daughter is sexually molested by their 12-year-old neighbor. Elgin grows increasingly distant from his wife as she drags him through what she believes will be cathartic court hearings and therapy sessions. Finally, Elgin stumbles across a secret slush fund his bosses have been skimming from a public benefits account. His life in an ever-squeezing vise, Elgin decides to steal a half-million dollars and run away from everything.
He was free. He was dead. He was alive. He was a machine.
Trying to lose himself in New York City (the naked city of eight million stories), Elgin crosses paths with Carla, a Faulkner-reading high-priced call girl and the woman he was chasing when the bus turned him into pavement meat. Gradually, the two move from a sexless business relationship (Elgin just wants companionship, someone to share his cross of burdens) to romance (albeit, an odd love affair tinged with nihilism and paranoia). Ligon builds their mutual attraction slowly, patiently over the course of the novel.
There is no such thing as a cardboard character in Ligon's world. Everyone -- from the greedy politicos to the desperate-for-stability wife to the lonely prostitute -- has pounds of flesh packed on their literary bones. Carla, especially, is complex and compelling. Her sections of the novel are the only ones told in first-person and Ligon gains our immediate sympathy for the troubled call girl as we go inside her head:
The real shame is in losing to loneliness, like you're no longer capable of living only with yourself, or worse, realizing or deciding that being strong isn't enough.
As Safe in Heaven Dead gradually unspools, we become more and more engrossed in the characters and the circumstances that put them in their private hells. Ligon uses the nonlinear structure of the novel to his advantage, never letting up on the tension as he slowly peels away the layers of what leads to the grim climax.
It's a cruel ending, yes, but we know it's coming, so we only have ourselves to blame for getting so caught up in these characters' lives. Safe in Heaven Dead is that rare novel which envelopes us completely in its world, leaving us to ponder and worry about its characters in the times when we've set the book aside to go about our daily business. When all is said and done, when all is dead and gone on the last page, we feel cold and lonely, like we were doomed to spend the rest of our days in a dark refrigerator at least, until the next, happier novel comes along. I can think of no higher praise than to say I loved every miserable minute of this book. | May 2003
David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.