The world of the as-yet-unpublished novelist brims with uncertainty and doubt. How can a previously unheard voice ever hope to reach the seemingly unattainable status of those who came before? To many, it’s an endeavor akin to carving up bodies—hardly worth the effort and not for the weak stomached. Yet if Matthew Guinn’s The Resurrectionist teaches anything at all, it’s that a truly exceptional piece of fiction can just as easily come from a debut novelist as an established icon.
For the reader, the decision to put one’s trust in a complete stranger doesn’t come easy. Plunging headlong into the world of a novel, it feels much safer to have a familiar guide, a name you know, with a style that won’t offer nasty surprises. Still, a certain exhilaration comes with picking up the work of a complete stranger. I compare it to trekking through a new city, the GPS purposely turned off. Sure, a world of disappointment could lie ahead … but one just might stumble onto something truly special.
The Resurrectionist may fall a bit short of hitting the proverbial literary jackpot, but we find here a solid piece of modern fiction, an impressive debut, in fact, with a twisted tale of bodysnatching, university politics and the perpetual power of the past.
The Resurrectionist would most accurately be labeled historical fiction, as it borrows its premise primarily from the morbid real-life happenings of the Georgia Medical College of Augusta. During renovations in 1989, workers discovered that the basement of this prestigious training ground for the doctors of the world housed more then 100 bodies—or cadavers, as those in the medical field prefer to call them. Investigation found that Grandison Harris, a slave purchased by the institution, procured the bulk of these nameless souls.
Harris’s job description read janitor, but school faculty dubbed him “The Resurrection Man.” Harris stole away in the dead of night to collect freshly buried bodies from Augusta’s black cemeteries. Think of the cadavers as study aids.
This gruesome task, at the same time illegal and highly controversial, satisfied a need at the medical school. Doctors tasked with the preservation of life wished to hone their skills through the study of death. This slightly unsettling juxtaposition holds implications that most of us, mercifully, are spared from pondering too deeply.
Using this real-life story of the macabre as backdrop, Guinn thrusts his readers into the halls of fictional South Carolina Medical College, an institution proudly producing doctors for more than a century. When a construction crew discovers human remains in the basement, the college faces the prospect of an all-out scandal that could shake the institution to its foundation.
Enter Dr. Jacob Thacker. Disgraced by Xanax addiction and relegated to the status of interim public relations man for one Dean McMichaels, Thacker arrives as the low man on the university totem pole. He draws the task of handling this new discovery, doing so while managing the black-and-white worldview of his superior:
But he knows better; he has long since warmed to McMichaels’ binary view of things, which every event can be placed in one of two categories, like columns on a balance sheet: Good for the School and Not Good for the School.
Thacker’s efforts to contain the powder keg in his university’s basement place him on a collision course with the obscure history of one Nemo Johnston, a slave purchased by the medical school just before the outbreak of the Civil War.
A fictionalized version of Grandison Harris, Nemo ranks as the novel’s great achievement. The slave’s story, a tale of a man who, through his ghastly talents, finds a way to thrive in a savage era, proves mesmerizing. Selected for his dubious position after assisting in a successful amputation, the talented slave symbolically casts aside his humanity for inhumane work, adopting the moniker Nemo: Latin for no man.
Nemo takes over the book, becoming such an alluring figure that much of the rest of the story feels overshadowed. The slave quite literally brings death to the doors of the college, yet he plays a pivotal role in preserving life through this grisly work. Routinely delivering his own people to medical dissection tables, Nemo finds opportunities for himself no other slave of the time could attain. He gets educated and goes on to become an educator, regularly fulfilling the duties of a medical professor, even giving lectures.
Guinn writes Nemo as a living, breathing morality conflict. The book’s most memorable passages depict the contemptuous relationship with his community that Nemo’s practice earns him. Accused of selling his soul to The Devil by a local preacher, Nemo offers up a response to raise chill bumps:
“I could tell you, that, reverend. But I won’t. Would be a lie. Only devil I know is white as a sheet, and yes, he walks around in the broad daylight. I works for him and you works for him.” He pressed the Bible into the reverend’s hand and clasped it. “So maybe you and me are closer than you think.”
The Resurrectionist suffers in spots from a relatively uneven dual narrative. Jacob Thacker’s investigation of his school’s colorful history doesn’t particularly captivate until the closing chapters. While the plot line offers an entertaining view of corrupt university administration, it ultimately amounts to Thacker doing little more than looking over old papers and photographs and mulling to himself about the short-sightedness of bosses.
Chapters focusing on Nemo, on the other hand, unapologetically stare into the dark history of the South. This reviewer wishes Guinn had placed all his focus on Nemo or had relegated Thacker’s saga to a frame tale. Still, if Guinn doesn’t quite hit a home run his first time at bat, through the help of one expertly crafted character, he does manage to bang one off the walls.
Would-be novelists, rejoice! Matthew Guinn has proven that you don’t have to have an exhaustive list of prior works to become a viable and quality voice in today’s fiction. With a debut the quality of The Resurrectionist under his belt—and a nomination for an Edgar Award for 2013—Guinn’s follow-up instantly becomes a “must buy” for this reviewer. The literary future looks bright indeed for the Jackson, Mississippi-based former personal assistant to the late James Dickey.
One hopes that he keeps the character of Nemo Johnston safely tucked away in some hidden corner of a basement in his imagination for possible future resurrection …
Nelson Sims, a graduate student at The University of West Alabama, currently works at the arduous task of getting his own writing “out there.” His various ramblings can be seen at DogAlleyUnderground.com.