A father struggles to reclaim his son from a long-standing coma in O’Connell’s dark, wildly inventive fantasy.
The years Danny Sweeney has spent at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Cleveland have done nothing to awaken him from his persistent vegetative state. Now his pharmacist father has brought him to the Peck Clinic in Quinsigamond, Mass., where Sweeney Senior is to take charge of the clinic’s drug room. The move is disruptive and the job means a pay cut, but the stakes are high: Dr. Micah Peck claims to have brought back two equally hopeless patients with experimental treatments. As Sweeney settles into his new routine, he becomes intent on collecting back issues of Limbo Comics, a series that had fascinated Danny before his accident. The comics relate the adventures of the Goldfaden Freaks, a sideshow troupe including a protective strongman, a fat lady, a dwarf, a skeleton, a bearded lady, a pinhead, a human torso, a lobster girl, a hermaphrodite, a pair of conjoined twins and a chicken boy who serves as their “conscience and spirit.” When Chick incurs the wrath of the murderous Shoshone McGee, the freaks are forced into a perilous odyssey. Although their comic-book travails apparently couldn’t be more removed from the antiseptic orbit of the Peck Clinic, the two worlds soon begin to bleed into one another, especially once Sweeney takes up with Nadia Rey, Danny’s nurse, and the Abominations, a gang of bikers who seem to straddle the frontier between Chick and Dr. Peck. Can Danny somehow be recalled to his father’s world, or can Sweeney join his son in Danny’s twilight world? The question won’t be answered until Sweeney is taught by Limbo Comics to see himself and his son in ways that demand a monstrous leap of faith.
The shadow world of comic books provides O’Connell (Word Made Flesh, 1999, etc.) with material for a nightmarish story that’s hallucinatory, tightly structured and ultimately redemptive.