Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Death in Brooklyn

He's a jovial fellow, but I've long associated Reed Farrel Coleman with death. Coleman talks about how witnessing a death in the street influenced his writing, and he told a Bouchercon 2009 panel that "I find nothing funny about murder."

This doesn't mean his fiction is devoid of deadpan wisecracks, but none is about death, dying or killing. Soul Patch, the fourth of Coleman's Moe Prager mysteries, offers this somber flight of imagination on how we deal with death and how things might be different:
"When everyone was gone, the three of us stood around watching the backhoe driver unceremoniously dumping bucketfuls of dirt on Larry's coffin. Got me thinking about how disconnected we were from death. It was easy to blame drugs, movies, TV, and video games for violence and the devaluation of human life. Bullshit! The real culprit was the lack of intimacy with death. When you're unfamiliar with death, you're disrespectful of life. No one dies in his or her bed anymore. ... Why should any of us respect death when we make it as remote as the mountains of the moon? I have often wondered whether it would be a little harder for a killer to pull the trigger or shove the blade in a second time if he had washed his dead brother's body or dug his mother's grave. What if he had watched his dad die an inch at a time from cancer and sat by the deathbed day after day after day? What if there was no church, no funeral home, no hospital, no way to pass the responsibilities of death off to strangers. How much harder would murder be?"
Kind of a serious flip side to John Lennon's "Imagine," isn't it?
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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26 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I was in the room when my father died this last December, and I think about the experience almost every day. It was the first time I'd ever seen someone pass away, and though I'd previously agreeded with Plato that the wise person is always seeking out death and dying, I was completely unprepared for it. We really have erected barriers in our culture to keep from considering the end of all flesh.

March 03, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

I read SOUL PATCH about a year ago, and I remember reading that paragraph aloud to my wife. You described something I like about his writing that not all writers get. The book can be funny in spots, laugh out loud funny, but death is not funny, and nothing is less funny than murder itself. Coleman has the knack for showing some reverence for death without allowing the book to become morbid.

March 03, 2010  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't believe in heaven but I have to say the last thing my mother said to me before she died was, "I almost feel joyful." There is something going on at death we don't understand.

March 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I don't remember if I thought about this before I first heard Coleman talk about this subject, but it strikes me as curious that crime fiction, which almost always involves murder, may be the only fiction in which the motivating event is something the author cannot ever have experienced.

March 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, the man's a bit of a philosopher, whether he'd agree or not with being so called.

March 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There is something going on at death we don't understand.

Imagine: mystery in a discussion of crime fiction!

March 03, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Oh, gosh, I have known too many young loved ones who passed away to see anything joyful in that; the ending months and then the final end...just tragedy and horrible loss for their families and friends.

I think it's different when the people are older.

When my strong, determined immigrant grandmother died at 98, no one was sad. Everyone thought she lived the longest, fullest life.

She had also survived typhus which killed many of her siblings in Poland in the early 1900s and she had survived tetanus in 1915 when no one else did.

So there are vast differences in circumstances and how loved ones feel and grieve.

March 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Most crime-fiction characters live shorter and less joyous lives than that grandmother of yours. A fortunate life like hers allows those around her to reflect on life and death, I would think. Coleman's point -- and he makes it in person and in print -- is that our ways of dealing with death don't generally allow for such reflection. In the passage he quoted, he speculates on the consequences of such failure. I don't think I've ever read anything like it in crime fiction.

March 03, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Will read some of Reed Farrel Coleman's books after reading this.

However, one thing about reading mysteries; death is usually dealt with quickly without much introspection or emotion attached to it. Maybe that's one reason it is so widely-read as a genre, because it avoids the emotional aspects of death; it happens and then the author moves on to the next act or dialogue.

An exception to me is Indridasson's books where his inspector continually thinks about his younger brother's death years before which still haunts him. That cannot help but grab the reader and one does feel his anguish.

Why do people not think or discuss much about death? Maybe it's cultural; it seems like in other countries it is a huge part of rituals and the society. And here, too, different cultures and communities deal with it so differently.

I wonder often if youth playing video games where they blow up thousands of figures representing people inures them to death; one blip and 1,000 are dead.

Or if war where the deaths of soldiers or the families' emotions are not shown on tv or discussed in the media (as opposed to the 1960s where more of this was shown)
and which distances the public from mourning, also trivializes death.

March 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, Coleman, or at least his protagonist, Moe Prager, has something to say about the suggestion that video games are to blame.

George Bush is to thank for the banning of media coverage of solduers' caskets arriving home which, I suppose, shows that the fear of death has political and policy implications.

Death and its associated rituals may once have been more accepted in this country. I have seen books of photographs from, I believe, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that document a time when death was more domestic in America than it is today.

March 04, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I just know some young folks to whom hundreds of deaths is just a statistic, with no human character, no understanding that each person has a personality, a family, friends, that each is mourned.

They play video games and watch hi-tech movies where hundreds of people get blown up. I don't think it's the whole story but contributes.

Yes, I agree on Bush. If war casualties were publicized and grieving families were shown on tv, it would mean more.

On death in the U.S., I see such cultural differences in communities. However, I do see more attention paid to these customs and rituals around the world than here.

Maybe it's the Anglo inheritance--stiff, upper lip and all, "let's move on."

I see it in my family--both sides--the Eastern European Jewish side, with more grieving, lasting longer, and then the Irish side, with wakes, then funerals; people actually crack jokes at wakes. Then they seem to move on.

However, fiction from all cultures deals with death and so does poetry. So it's being discussed somewhere.

March 04, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Peter, yes, there is great irony in founding a genre on something no one has ever experienced. But in times past, most people had at least witnessed death. Hence the intro to Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" ("As virtuous men pass mildly away, / And whisper to their souls to go, / Whilst some of their sad friends do say, / 'Now his breath goes,' and some say, 'No.'") Now we're almost entirely insulated from the end of all flesh. I can't help thinking it isn't an entirely positive thing to not consider where we're all going.

March 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One is tempted to think of the English inheritance, but some of those books of photographs I mentioned earlier were of American scenes. I'd suggest it's more the California influence -- that Americans refuse to acknowledge mortality and think they can go on being young forever, whether through plastic surgery, weird diets or odd spiritual practices.

The Jewish side figures in Coleman's books. "Soul Patch" includes an excerpt of his next Moe Prager book in which Prager and an old friend walk through a cemetery and Prager muses upon the opening words of the Kaddish.

March 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, Donne was a big one for contemplating death, I think, from what little of his poetry I know.

March 04, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Don't want to read anything too sad; will check out other Moe Prager books for now.

I try to avoid sad and mournful if possible.

March 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, "Soul Patch" is less mournful than it is nostalgic and sobering. The mystery is rooted in an event from Moe Prager's professional past, and it opens his eyes to truths and mysteries about longtime colleagues, friends and even relatives.There is also much wistful reminiscence about Coney Island. The book is more wistful than sad, really. Now, some of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels are sad and mournful. As it happens, Coleman and Bruen have written one novel together, "Tower."

March 04, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

It was easy to blame drugs, movies, TV, and video games for violence and the devaluation of human life. Bullshit! The real culprit was the lack of intimacy with death. When you're unfamiliar with death, you're disrespectful of life. No one dies in his or her bed anymore.

The 'bullshit!' in the above quote would be better if the exclamation mark was replaced with a colon. Lack of intimacy with death is a reflection of humanity's increasingly less bloodthirsty ways, not a cause of them.

You don't have to go back much more than a hundred years to find a time when public hangings were one of the most popular forms of entertainment around. Our forebears had an intimacy with death that we can hardly begin to imagine and they were a hell of a lot more bloodthirsty than we are.

When I was growing up, the term tit-for-tat killings was something you'd hear on the news almost on a daily basis. But that was up the road in Northern Ireland. Now we have a bad problem with gangland violence and a lot of that stems from vendettas, with one killing leading to another.

The character in Reed's book has it upside down. Intimacy with violent death leads to more violence, not less.

March 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect many of the photographs to which I've referred date from days when infant and childhood mortality are less than they are now. Better medical care may have made death less frequent and hence less familiar, another reason to welcome our lack of familiarity with death.

The character in Reed's book has it upside down. Intimacy with violent death leads to more violence, not less.

The character does not speak of intimacy with violent death. To the contrary, the passage speculates about familiarity with non-violent death -- preparing a relative for burial or watching a relative die of cancer -- as a possible antidote to violent killing.

March 04, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I'll read "Soul Patch." Coney Island--I remember the Boardwalk, the Steeplechase, the ferris wheel, cotton candy, getting sunburned. I'll enjoy the nostalgia.

Talking about nostalgia and going back to the sixties for a moment. Just read a article about Sara Paretsky in the Independent UK and she talks about the sixties. She says she has such great nostalgia for it that it's a hunger.

Anyway, to contemplate how death is dealt with here, it's puzzling. Everyone does dealt with it. Elderly parents pass away which nearly all of us experience unless we outlive them.

Then there are so many other deaths of family members and friends from illnesses and accidents.

People do grieve and most people have customs and rituals to deal with it.

March 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think Moe Prager remembers all those things, and I believe Coleman grew up in the area and knows it well. Read his books, then go to a convention and reminisce with him.

I haven't read Sara Paretsky, but I think she keeps some of the restlessness and outspokenness of the '60s alive.

March 05, 2010  
Anonymous John H said...

I agree with Solo.

Even in these days it depends on how personal it is.

My son just turned 18 and has lost many more people than I did at his age. A bunch of older close relatives due to old age and too many younger ones.

Several classmates died in car wrecks and one to suicide. His pitching coach killed himself when he realized he wasn't going to get out of AAA minor league baseball. Sadly he has had to speak at a number of funerals and doesn't take it lightly.

However he enjoys blowing up planets and killing millions of people with his video console. He knows the difference.

March 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It sounds as if you agree with Moe Prager in not taking the easy out of blaming video games and in being sobered by personal experience.

Just think: Years ago, as the great Bill James (the baseball writer, not the crime writer) noted, before non-stop television brought the major leagues into every home, minor-league baseball was a respectable career. To make it to AAA, a player has to be pretty damned good. Years ago, peaking at AAA may have been less likely to plunge a player into despair.

March 05, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Sara Paretsky's latest book, "Hardball," goes back to events of the 1960s, which need a resolution. And she does resolve the particular murders but the roots of them go back to true incidents in 1960s Chicago.

I don't blame video games for how death is dealt with or not dealt with.

However, I know some young men who hear that hundreds or thousands died in a war or a tsunami or an earthquake and there's no connection to those people, no feeling for them or their loved ones, no idea it's real people who died and those who are left to mourn.

And they play video games where they bump off hundreds of people with a push of a button. And they watch movies where high-tech weapons do this.

And now there are drone missiles where the button pusher is countries away, disassociated with the human beings impacted. And it seems like another computer game.

I don't know. As I and others have said, it's cultural. Many other countries view death differently, have more rituals and customs associated with it.

I still think some of it is the Anglo-stiff-upper-lip, let's get-on-with it and move on view.

Yet different communities in this country do deal with death differently. I see it in my family. Maybe it's because the Holocause hit one side of my family and not the other, death is viewed differently.

And what's the view of the value of a human life? That differs, too. So when it's lost, it's a huge tragedy or it isn't, depending on the culture and the situation (and age of the deceased).

March 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I find those video games of mass destruction creepy, but I couldn't swear they have a harmful effect. As for the numbing effects of disaster news, I don't know how to counteract that. Most of us cannot relate to destruction on that scale, which we can be thankful for.

I can't help thinking -- and I have no evidence to back this up -- that Americans might think twice about sending soldiers off to war if they had seen war on their own soil in their own lifetimes.

March 05, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I agree. I was thinking about that, too, that if there had been war in this century in this country, and that level of devastation, the people might be very leery of sending their children off the war.

Even about WWII, I know young folks who can't relate to the catastrophic destruction of human life, of cultures, communities, cities, countries. It's statistics to them.

And it's true, too, about other wars and even the tsunami and the earthquakess.

The wonders of television can personalize the tragedies, so one feels for those affected. Or photos in newspapers or on the Web can do that, too.

Maybe society is divided into those who feel the sanctity of human life and those who don't.

Or maybe it's how we were brought up, the values engrained by our parents, that we carry on for years.

March 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember when Bill Clinton was running for president, there were murmurings that he lacked the basis to make decisions with respect to the military because he had not himself served. A wise commentator said that such inexperience was a thing devoutly to be wished. May Americans and everyone always lack experience of disaster! What a task it is to be able to relate with clearheadedness and compassion and understanding to such things and at the same to be blessed with not having experienced them. Makes life interesting, I'd say.

The trouble with pictures on television personalizing tragedy is at least twofold: Images are easily manipulated, and it's all too easy for images, whether real or fictional, to became just one more bit of endless spectacle.

March 06, 2010  

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