“The Brief History of the Dead” by Kevin Brockmeier

by Joe Eskenazi on February 22, 2007

Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky (spirit in the sky)/ That’s where I’m gonna go when I die (when I die)/ When I die and they lay me to rest/ I’m gonna go to the place that’s the best. — Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit in the Sky.”

Other than that catchy tune, Norman Greenbaum’s musical career long ago joined the spirit in the sky, though the corporeal Greenbaum is still very much with us here on the ground. So our guess is as good as his as to what really happens when the lights go out for the very last time. Well, here’s an idea: You may well find yourself pushing a broom in the afterlife. Someone is still emptying out trash cans and ashtrays, frying up bacon and eggs at a greasy spoon and cleaning up on Aisle Seven.

That’s the conjecture put forward by gifted author Kevin Brockmeier in his latest novel “The Brief History of the Dead.” In Brockmeier’s fantasy world, the dead make their way to “the city,” an amorphously vast and ever-changing necropolis in which they catch the morning bus, drink coffee and go about lives not unlike your or mine — with the exception being that their hearts no longer beat and they can bump into all their deceased relatives and former lovers.

Yet this passable if not idyllic state is not permanent. Your (after)life in the city lasts only as long as until the last person in the world of the living who remembers you dies. At that point you squirt out of the city like a watermelon seed to parts unknown. Even the dead continue to fear the mysteries of the great beyond.

But what happens when there’s nobody left on Earth? Well, the city begins to resemble Detroit or Newark or any other large metropolis riddled with empty buildings meant to house citizens and businesses long departed. In a captivating and brilliantly written first chapter, Brockmeier reels us into his tale via the experiences of a blind man who can only sit by while a city larger than Earth itself is rapidly reduced to a ghost town (literally, if you think about it).

That first chapter, incidentally, appeared as a short story in “The New Yorker.” And while this is a definitely a good novel, the first chapter — Brockmeier’s pitch, so to speak — is never bested.

The city’s depopulation comes via a Doomsday pandemic known as “The Blinks” which kills off billions of Earth’s surface dwellers and also leaves protagonist Luka Sims, a deceased journalism instructor who puts together a small daily newspaper for the dead, with no readership.

The notion of billions of people rapidly perishing in spasms of uncontrollable nerve impulses is disturbing. But nowhere near as disturbing to yours truly as the notion that, even in the afterlife, there’s no future for a print journalist.

Being a newsman — and, evidently, having time on his hands for a bit of proactive reporting — Sims soon reveals that, of the souls left in the city (of which there are enough to perhaps fill up the Cow Palace) all of them seemed to have some connection with Laura Byrd, presumably the last person on Earth, and tenuously grasping to life in the wilds of Antarctica on a misbegotten mission by the Coca-Cola corporation (The Coke connection is a silly subplot on Brockmeier’s part. Let it suffice that Byrd, like Admiral Byrd, is in Antarctica).

Brockmeier is an unquestionably skilled writer; his construction is light and well-organized and readers are often rewarded with subtle yet deep observations of the human condition:

Phillip began stirring a packet of sugar into his coffee. Next he would take a slow, pondering sip from the oval of the spoon and make a face as he decided that the coffee was not yet sweet enough, and empty a second packet of sugar into the cup, watching it break the surface, as he always did. Time had made a wreck out of his body, Marion thought — a wreck of both their bodies — but he was still a little boy in some respects, marooned at that age when discovering his own habits was a sort of game for him. The game had to be played the same way every day, or the pieces would fall to the floor, the board would collapse and the illusion you were shaping your own life — that you were in control — would break. It was one of the many things Marion had loved about Phillip at first, then somewhere along the way stopped loving, and now loved again.

Phillip and Marion, incidentally, are Laura Byrd’s parents, and the rekindling of their love beyond the grave (which will only last as long as their daughter lives) is one of the great conceits in this world Brockmeier has created.

Other elements don’t work so well. Brockmeier attempts to weave together numerous lives in at least two different plotlines, and some of the characters he opts to spend chapter-long dalliances on are simply not as interesting as others. And, finally, there’s Laura.

Brockmeier has bequeathed his female lead with a tendency to play word-association games — “American. Yank Tug. Tugboat. Engine.” Or “Dentist.” “Doctor.” “Braces.” “Erase.” “Abrasive.” Or others that last for paragraphs.

Now this is annoying. It’s like having a loud, deranged homeless man reading out loud over your shoulder. And it’s just one of many problems with the whole Laura plotline. Her attempts to whisk across the Ross Ice Shelf from polar base to base in an attempt to radio any survivors reads like part Shackleton, part “To Build a Fire” and part “Fear Factor.” As Laura hovers between life and death, sometimes, God help me, I wish she’d just choose a path and get on with it.

What is it about diversions to the South Pole that put good books off course? The surreal polar escapades in “Kavalier and Klay” were the weakest part of that novel, too.

While Brockmeier’s novel limps into the finish line, it ends with not a whimper but a bang, thanks to the blind man’s chilling ruminations on the demise of the city and of life, love and remembrance in general. What a nice touch it is from Brockmeier that the most gifted observer in his book is blind.

And stone dead, for that matter.

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