In the opening pages of Jack O'Con-nell's fifth novel, "The Resurrectionist," we meet Sweeney, a father and pharmacist who has no clue what he's gotten himself into. In a desperate attempt to help his 6-year-old son, Danny, pull out of a post-accident coma, Sweeney's brought his child from Cleveland to the Peck Clinic, an eerie, almost gothic New England hospital that's had some success with reviving the comatose. The chief doctor is a little stingy with details about how he pulls that off, exactly, but Sweeney is encouraged to be patient.
O'Connell demands much the same of the reader. Tonally, "The Resurrectionist" is all over the place, though intentionally so: It blends the out-there mysticism of H.P. Lovecraft, the dark corridors and femme fatales of Dashiell Hammett, and the pulpy, lurid qualities of '50s comic books. That last part is critical, as much of the plot of "The Resurrectionist" hinges on "Limbo," a comic-book series much loved by Danny that focuses on the adventures of a group of circus freaks. The novel regularly breaks from the main narrative to summarize the plots of a particular issue of "Limbo," which features tales of derring-do by a strongman, fat lady, "chicken boy," and more as they navigate a hate-filled world.
The "Limbo" sections prove to be some of the best writing in "The Resurrectionist" -- O'Connell is clearly taken with his characters, and with the high drama (Rescues at sea! Attacks by gargoyles!) that the comic-book style allows him. And "Limbo" is performing some allegorical work, too, mirroring the staffers at the Peck Clinic and a tribe of bikers who have some unusual theories about awakening the comatose.
"This city was a circus and the clinic was starting to seem like a freak show," O'Connell writes, as Sweeney considers packing up and going home. "Cleveland may have been hopeless but at least it was known despair."
But O'Connell's attempt to play the comic-book world against the real one -- and then, eventually, to merge them -- is disappointingly clumsy.
Like a silk dress sewn together with baling wire, the novel is full of lovely parts that don't quite come together, and Sweeney is a frustratingly static hero. For much of the novel he's asking some variation of "What on earth is going on here?" only to be rebuffed, until the next person arrives to be queried. By the time that Sweeney (and the reader) discover what's really going on -- something often hinted at but only clarified in the final fourth of the novel -- the truth is too odd, and Sweeney too passive, to produce any genuine emotional effect.
O'Connell, it appears, got so swallowed up in crafting the novel's ornate structure that he neglected the message he wanted to send. That message isn't especially complicated: It's about the obligations that fathers have to sons, about the security they can provide amid the "freakishness" of the outside world. That's a story that can easily degenerate into greeting-card sentimentality, and to its credit the novel is too gritty to play cute. There may yet be a novel that can successfully get at such home-and-hearth themes by tinkering with pulps, fantasy and mystery. But "The Resurrectionist," unfortunately, is too much of a mystery itself.
Mark Athitakis is the arts editor of Washington City Paper. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.