THE LIVES OF THE DEAD by Charlie Smith


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An artist's crackup is shadowed by violence, on screen and off: Smith (Canaan, 1984; Shine Hawk, 1988) struggles with familiar themes, against a familiar southern backdrop, in his impossibly long-winded third novel. Two parallel journeys are being undertaken here. The first is that of narrator Buddy Drake, a 42-year-old, washed-up filmmaker with ""a dozen movies filled with mayhem and disaster"" behind him, his early successes followed by a string of failures. He is traveling to Florida's Gulf Coast, where his wealthy ex-wife Bess oversees the family nurseries; she financed his first movie and is his last hope for his next project. This will feature a cool serial killer with scorched blue eyes, D'Nel Boyd, who appeared (literally) before Buddy during shooting of his previous movie in North Dakota (""Wherever I went now, he followed me. . .It had become a nuisance, a distraction, a horror""). Large chunks of narrative describe D'Nel's journey, a killing spree across the Panhandle; his accomplices are his woman Molly and her childhood sweetheart Banty Jakes (an indissoluble triangle and a Smith trademark). Bess turns Buddy down, whereupon D'Nel appropriates Buddy/Frankenstein's soul; the crazed moviemaker kills Bess, then, out in the Gulf, kills her brother and two sponge-divers. Unlike D'Nel, however, Buddy is a sentimental killer: ""I wanted to put my arms around the necks of these Florida sons of the sea and kiss their blistered skin."" Dozens of episodes and digressions fill out, but fail to animate, this almost plot-less work. As it happens, Buddy is desperate but dull, while D'Nel is flashy but dull; neither man is illuminated by the impeccably lit stage on which they make their moves. The result is one of those full-scale disasters that sometimes befall talented writers when they cannot find the right form of their material (which in Smith's case is a complex, poetic vision of violence and excess).

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Linden/Simon & Schuster