Death of an Ordinary Man: A Novel
by Glen Duncan
Grove. 320 pp. $13 paper.
“As soon as the soul is set free from the body it is either plunged into hell or soars to heaven,” wrote that doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas back in the thirteenth century, “unless it be held back by some debt, for which its flight must needs be delayed until the soul is first of all cleansed.” This truth is now attested also by the manifest authority of England's Glen Duncan.
Death of an Ordinary Man is Duncan's novel about the delayed flight—or will it prove to be the delayed plunge?—of the soul of Nathan Clark, who in the opening pages comes to consciousness to find himself floating in mid-air above a churchyard. “The people he knew stood below him in negligible rain around a freshly dug grave.” He sees family, friends, his whole circle. There is one ominous absence: himself. “Wait. Calm. List the facts. This is St. Xavier's. Exeter. Everyone. A grave.” Mourners approach to toss upon the coffin their handfuls of earth. “He made himself take a moment, while the priest—Murray, whom he hadn't seen since Lois' christening—raised and lowered his arms like a tentatively worked marionette.” The rain falls harder, and Nathan realizes that he cannot feel the drops. “Taking the moment to let in the obvious. His funeral.”
Nathan does a hurried inventory: He is forty-eight years old, a secondary-school teacher of history, the father of three, a lapsed Catholic. But his evident death he cannot recall. As he watches himself being buried, he fishes for memories and unexpectedly hooks one that is far too heavy for his line: “They'd had Lois cremated. It hadn't needed discussion.” Lois? The unbidden remembrance that his youngest child has preceded him in death “loomed up and darkened everything, like the shadow of a giant wave. He veered, wildly—”
Thus begins a strenuous afterlife, as Nathan steers his protoplasmic self clumsily above his burial and wake, peering down on conversations, buffeted by bolts of memory, trying to figure out what happened to him and to Lois. He can hear the unspoken thoughts of the living, a useful talent for a detective, but these psychic encounters grate upon his tender non-body and drain his meager energy. Nathan in death—invisible, inaudible, and lacking even the poltergeistic ability to rattle a teacup—is not much different from Nathan in life: a worried father and faithful husband, hovering awkwardly about the people he loves. As for the dead whom he has now presumably joined, “the billions,” he sees none of them and senses none around him. “Shouldn't Lois be here? If this was. . . . He sent out a query. Lo? Nothing.”
Broken sentences, shreds of thought, telegraphic phrases, sudden associations: The style that Duncan has created suits a fledgling ghost who is more spooked against than spooking. Following Nathan through his cautious but persistent endeavor to dispel his amnesia, we are treated to some excellent writing, as Duncan's prose makes almost palpable the attractions and repulsions that still bind poor flailing Nathan to the world of the living. Duncan's outstanding achievement, the heart of his book, is a long chapter (entitled “Claire”) that takes us up to the crest of the novel: fifty pages of exemplary craftsmanship and wrenching emotion.
I will not spoil the surprise of the ending—any more than the author himself does. Duncan has written Death of an Ordinary Man so that every reader will twig to the facts long before the spectral Nathan can bring himself to confront them. The sad truths are these: Lois at age twelve was kidnapped, raped, and strangled; her killer is still unknown; her father's death, three years later, is self-inflicted. Gina, his eighteen-year-old daughter, ponders all this at the wake: “He'd had two modes: distress and denial. You needed more than that. If he'd turned his life into a quest to hunt down Lois' killer he'd have lived to be a hundred. Why didn't he do that?” Nathan, listening in, mutters, “Because I didn't have the strength. Sorry, angel. I wasn't strong enough.”
Hence his suicide. But the novel is called Death of an Ordinary Man. Nathan's ordinariness, the author makes clear, consists in his utter contentment with being husband to Cheryl and father to Luke, Gina, and Lois, and in his lack of competing goals, professional or other. His wife Cheryl is, by contrast, discontentment on wheels, a would-be novelist of large ambition and small patience, a kitchen-table nihilist and suburban amoralist whose résumé includes adulteries that she has committed to “enlarge” herself. (On these affairs Nathan's policy is don't-ask-don't-tell.) “For Cheryl, the world had these huge potentialities, like gods who every now and then spoke to her: Come here, let me show you what I could do for you. Nathan heard them, too, but for him they were false gods, and the one true god—love, his wife, his children—would suffer no false gods before it.”
Duncan's own judgment of Nathan's household religion is nowhere stated, but his portrayal of its liturgies and its works makes it seem a distinctly unfruitful idolatry. Spouses who make idols of their spouses and parents who make idols of their offspring risk having their gods fail when tested; and what test could be more severe than the untimely or violent death of a child? “Nathan and Cheryl are each other's curse since the loss of Lois,” we read. Duncan dramatizes so convincingly the predictable pathologies of bereaved parents that he raises, whether intentionally or not, this deep question: Has the determinedly ordinary family man cut himself off from the only spiritual resources that might enable him and his family to survive the horror of a child's death? Can life be successfully ordinary if it is not anchored in the extraordinary? It was some such question that Yahweh posed to Job in their long-ago grief-counseling session.
The wife's moral outlawry serves the family no better than the husband's idolatry does. Back in their cannabis-enhanced student days, when Nathan quoted to her Martin Niemöller's post-Dachau dictum, “they came for the Jews, but I wasn't a Jew, so I did nothing,” Cheryl listened and then memorably responded, “No one left when they come for me? It's a deal. Just don't bother me in the meantime.”
But this sort of bargain with reality is one that reality will seldom honor. It will come for you, as it has come for Cheryl, where you least expect it—for instance, through the murder of your daughter—and will expose your hard-eyed realism as sentimental fantasy. Thus exposed, Cheryl has retreated from her family and from her writing into an armored acquisitiveness in a big new corporate job.
Duncan's notable earlier novel was I, Lucifer, a first-person apologia by the prince of darkness. Thus one might have expected to find this technically Catholic family at least tempted by, and struggling against, the traditional consolations of religion. But no. Christianity is not even properly a background to the book. Catholicism gets a minor nasty personification in Nathan's narcissistic old dad, the Clark children spend a moment or two in some half-hearted Christianity-baiting, and with that Duncan seems to be satisfied. Why, then, were the children baptized? Why is Nathan buried in the graveyard of the parish he never attends? No hint is given. Nor is the reader given any description of the funeral service in the church (a Mass?), since the author brings Nathan awake only when the funeral party has moved to the graveyard. (In his interment, at least, Nathan is out of the ordinary: only about three out of ten English corpses are returned to the earth these days; most are cremated.)
Must we accept the personable but pitiable Nathan Clark as the everyman from Exeter, the garden-variety Englishman in this post-everything age? If so, God help us, everyone. He is intellectually and professionally sterile, acknowledges no relationship with any higher or lower power; he is yoked in marriage to a moral idiot and has no siblings or other extended family to whom to look for sympathy and support.
He does have one male friend, Adrian, but Adrian's principal contribution to Nathan's life is an enduring wish to have sex with Nathan's wife. That wish is fulfilled one summer morning when Nathan is away from home. Nathan returns unexpectedly to find Cheryl and Adrian in the bedroom, sitting half-naked in bleak post-coital torpor. “Why have we done this?” Adrian is asking. “Because I collect perversions,” Cheryl replies. That afternoon, Nathan slits his wrists.
By the end of the novel Nathan has indeed paid a debt, if only to himself, and he has been somewhat cleansed, at least of some taint of cowardice. “He went looking for Lois,” says his daughter Gina. She is right, though neither she nor Nathan seems to wonder whether committing the sin of suicide is the best path to reunion with the innocent soul of a slaughtered daughter. Nonetheless, Nathan, in the first day of his post-interment career, has shown courage and resolution and has faced some crucial facts. Apparently this stage is over. He is confronted now with two choices that palely manifest themselves on opposite sides of a dark room. One is a white bed with the covers invitingly turned back. The other is a white door, firmly closed but with a prominent brass knob. “If I go through the door, will Lois be there?”
No answer comes. “Still fighting off sleep and wondering how, exactly, he was expected to get it open, Nathan moved towards the door.” As Nathan heads deeper into his afterlife, no reader will fail to wish him well.
In Oregon earlier this year a man with terminal cancer swallowed his state-approved lethal dose of Seconal and lay down in his bed to die. Three days later he woke up and, according to the newspaper stories, informed his wife that he had been in the presence of God and that God “had rejected his death by suicide and sent him back to live out his days and die a natural death.” By all accounts, this extraordinarily clear message was brought back from the beyond by an exceedingly ordinary man.
J. A. Gray, formerly Associate Editor of First Things, is director of communications for the De La Salle Christian Brothers in Napa, California.