Joe Connelly’s Bringing Out the Dead was the rare novel that was as lyrical as it was streetwise, as if Raymond Chandler wrote a novel about paramedics that were slumming lower than their wards. The story of healers in search of healing — emotional, existential — was laid gently across the pages, cathartic and not overly critical.
So what happened with Crumbtown, Connelly’s sophomore novel? Calling it a ‘sophomore slump’ really isn’t an exaggeration; the book was a commercial and critical flop. Sure, you could probably say that’s because the book didn’t spawn a film adaptation (like the Martin Scorsese-directed Bringing Out the Dead from 1999), but it could just be because the book, well, was just bad. Sorry, Joe.
The idea works in theory: convict is released early from prison to act as a consultant for a TV drama based around the criminal’s antics. But this is how it really plays out: After spending more time in prison than out, Don Reedy is released early to return to the urban cesspool of Crumbtown. Lots of confusing things happen, which play out like they’re supposed to be funny (but aren’t), or wink-wink nudge-nudge ironic (and aren’t). And the book weakly coasts to a stop before ending, like a deflating helium balloon clinging to its last few months in the air.
Connelly never fully develops Don as a character, but I feel like the reader is supposed to grow to love or pity him (or both). He’s merely a list of actions with a name attached; there’s no meat on the bone. The supporting cast doesn’t fare much better either, especially the small cloud of has-beens and never-will-bes that float around Don. The only character that had some weight — a Russian immigrant bartender turned love (no, make that lust; there’s no love here) interest — feels like she should be in another, better book.
Crumbtown also relies far too much on cheap laughs or unwieldy surrealism to attempt to float the plot along. The grand jest of having Don rob the TV set based on a robbery he committed is the only thing that comes off as clever, but that good feeling fades fast. Characters with goofy names aren’t funny in the long run, especially if you’re trying to pass it off as satire. Crumbtown shoots for street-level satire and hits the gutter with one-note jokes.
Connelly’s wordplay is one of the few things worthwhile in the book. Short, elegantly descriptive passages kept me thinking that yes, Connelly is talented; but even this aspect is tainted by hodge-podge editing. I had wished that I were reading Bringing Out the Dead again.
by Joe Connelly
Published in 2004 by Vintage Press