Jack O’Connell Week: Kelly Shaw’s “Working Hard for Weird Fiction”

I discovered Jack O’Connell’s boundless imagination and tireless work ethic only two months ago through his brilliant new novel, The Resurrectionist and his appearance at Milwaukee’s best independent bookstore, Harry W. Schwartz.

The Resurrectionist is a truly moving, original marriage of dark noir and vibrant fantasy; of black-and-white alleys and magical circus acts. It’s filled with measured prose, spot-on characterizations and dialogue, unpredictable storytelling, and an undercurrent of melancholy. Can you tell it’s one of my favorite reads of recent years?

Its twin-pronged plot, though running only 300 pages, is a page-turner brimming with invention, unpredictable turns, and necessary stuff–surely, the result of nine years of deliberation (O’Connell’s last novel, Word Made Flesh, was published in 1999).

One story thread features O’Connell’s signature city Quinsigamond (think Gotham City on steroids), where a grieving father, Sweeney, admits his comatose son, Danny, into the hospital of the mad Dr. Peck. Sweeney’s fate, in typical noir fashion, intersects with the city’s underbelly, including a biker gang dubbed “The Abominations,” icy femme fatales, and a bizarre drug trade. The other story thread brings to life Danny’s favorite comic book, Limbo, where a band of circus freaks travels across a fantastical landscape in search of their lost father.

O’Connell elegantly melds these disparate strands, smartly infusing them with profound themes: He ponders the author’s moral responsibility while interrogating the relationship between identity, storytelling, and reality.

But O’Connell is more than just a virtuoso storyteller; in person, he’s affable and down-to-earth. At his Milwaukee reading, he exuded infectious enthusiasm for noir craftsmen like David Goodis and Jim Thompson as well as the short stories of Richard Matheson and Harlan Ellison (all evident, to varying degrees, in The Resurrectionist), and also endorsed a tireless work ethic that makes me glad I don’t write: For twenty-five years, while balancing a full-time job and family, he’s written every morning from 4:30 to 7!

Now, I only hope The Resurrectionist finds the audience it deserves. Kelly Shaw, 7/5/08

Kelly Shaw is an enthusiast of literary genre fiction, especially of the dark and weird variety. Occasionally, he shares his enthusiasm and, er, criticism for books and movies on his blog.