WAKING THE DEAD by Scott Spencer
Kirkus Star


Email this review


Fielding Pierce is one of the children of working-class but politically active parents, and he's grown up always knowing his goal: high (if lucky, highest) political office. So he's gone about his life carefully--the Coast Guard after college, then law school, then an assistant prosecutor--and he finally gets his big chance: nomination to fill a vacant Chicago congressional seat in a special election. While Fielding was still in law school, however, his lover, Sarah Williams, a passionately involved and ferverishly spiritual young woman, was killed--blown to bits--in a car that was bombed by Chilean agents, a car containing political exiles whom Sarah was mercifully and secretly shuttling through the US. Despite this wound, Fielding went on to resume his life, taking on a powerful political mentor, a new girlfriend (the mentor's niece), and a seemingly guaranteed entry into the world of power he's always wanted. But then, in only the first days of the congressional campaign, he seems to be reencountering Sarah: a mysterious telephone call, a noctural apprehension, eventually actual sightings. Is she really alive--or is it her ghost he's seeing, her hungry revenant spirit? In the meantime, the campaign is falling apart, mostly through inattention. He'll eventually win, but it is hollow; by then, he's exhausted and half way over the edge. Every element that makes Spencer the brilliant novelist he is appears here. The relentlessness, the feel for pathetic fallacy (gorgeous metaphors and similes fed musically through graceful and powerful sentences; a governing trope: snow-ghosts); his obsessive yen for detail; compacted psychology (""Dad shrugged. . .'Do you want to take a walk with me?' he asked, the heartiness in his voice boarding on aggression--he had a horror of rejection that included even the most trivial matters. He hadn't been given enough to do in his life, his spirit had been underutilized, and his sense of honor had settled into pride""); the fearlessness of using an unattractive protagonist. Yet of Spencer's mature works, Preservation Hall and Endless Love, this new one is the weakest. Although Fielding's family--his parents, his screwed-up hustler/publisher brother, his victimized sister--provide compelling foils for Fielding's Sarah-obsession, the book doesn't really seem to know how to use them well; hanging threads are everywhere: characters are etched wonderfully but never set into motion. An ambitious, cracking-up young man and his lover/conscience/muse eat up all the air here, and for all the muscular pain and anxiety, the turmoil stays basically inert. It's a static book, all the more frustrating after all the confident moves Spencer takes toward real story--then steps back from. Maybe our most interesting American fiction writer--but here not doing as much with his opportunities as he might have.

Pub Date: May 22nd, 1986
Publisher: Knopf