(Tyrus Books) Scott O’Connor’s debut novel, Untouchable, weaves together the ways people live at the horizon of death. With a remarkably clear voice — one that adjusts seamlessly to speak what a child cannot say, a father cannot hear, or a city cannot speak — O’Connor maps the territory of dread and despair that makes the reader ache, that will not let the reader alone, even long after the last page of this beautifully written novel has been turned.
With deft, precise, almost Hemingwayesque language, O’Connor has written a story that is deeply poignant. Its force derives not only from the vividly and accurately described feelings and actions of the characters or the story’s themes, but also from the author’s reverence for the people, places, and ideas that constitute the work as a whole. A good story can be good because of its subject matter, well-drawn characters, good dialogue, or overall quality writing. All this commends O’Connor’s book, to be sure, but there is something more. There is that intangible element, that paradoxically respectful distance the author opens up between himself and the most intimate relation he has with his characters, the storyline, and the heartbreak of what it is to be a human being.
This distance opens up a space for the reader to step in, to develop relationships with 11-year old Whitley Darby — “The Kid” — and his father, David Darby, the main characters in the story. But O’Connor’s emotional scope is also panoramic enough that the reader can think from the point of view of the other characters, including Matthew, The Kid’s best friend, or Brian Bromwell, one of The Kid’s tormentors, with equal ease and believe.
Ostensibly, what we are to believe is that a father and son are coping none too well with the death of wife and mother Lucy Darby. Lucy has been dead for just over a year. It wasn’t long after her death that The Kid stopped talking. His father, David Darby, has since given him a notebook in which The Kid writes what he wants to say, but the one thing he wants most remains secret. Meanwhile, David, who works as a technician cleaning up the aftermath of death, has not slept in his bed since the day Lucy died. In fact, he hardly sleeps at all. Instead, he climbs into the cab of his pick-up truck and listens to talk radio.
As Y2K looms, a doomsday cult prepares for the end of the world. These are O’Connor’s version of a Greek chorus in the background, as The Kid and Darby’s resistance against the ineluctable reality plays out. The Kid believes he can bring his mother back, and David believes he can re-make his world. We know from the outset that these beliefs are achingly erroneous — and this knowledge seems to intensify as the story progresses — but we believe right along with them. O’Connor’s characters make us want to believe. It is just this wanting — futile yearning, really — that draws the reader right up to the brink of that horizon, where we hover, wait, and, despite ourselves, hope for the best. Yes, this novel will break your heart, but you will be touched.
'Untouchable' is published by Tyrus Books May 2011.
Top photograph of Scott O'Connor by Susan C. Weber.