Lit-urday: Second Life

Follow Paul Griner's troubled heroine into the meaty afterlife

Lit-urday: Second Life

It's been a long week, and now you deserve to have one day when you can curl up with a good book – let's call it Lit-urday. Maybe the thing to make you feel less dead tired is a crime thriller about people who are dead dead and a living hero who has to recover one – her bestie's body, actually – after it's vanished.

Second Life

by Paul Griner

Soft Skull Press; 304pp.; $25

A woman named Elena Kelly is a body broker, a corpse wrangler, in this new novel by the critically acclaimed Paul Griner.

That is to say, the resolutely unsqueamish Ms. Kelly takes the bodies of the recently deceased and harvests their various parts – hearts, lungs, eyes, bones, ligaments, tendons, and so on – for sale to organ banks and university clinics and pharmaceutical concerns and elsewhere.

Not all this activity is, how you say, strictly aboveboard.

Well, past tense: Elena Kelly used to do that. But, eventually, money blurring her moral vision, she crossed a few lines too many – lines of decency, of legality, of criminal intent – and wound up, following the nationally televised spectacle of scandal, on court-ordered probation. And, although she’s now found legit work as a coroner’s assistant in Kentucky, she’s not allowed to go anywhere near the shadowy corpse-wrangling industry again.

This proves problematic when Kelly’s erstwhile best friend dies – and that former friend’s body has … gone missing. And Kelly, operating under about a Matterhorn’s worth of complex guilt and shattered love, vows to track the body down. And things get ugly fast.

[Ah, “the critically acclaimed Paul Griner.” The phrase makes sense to me. I used to have a subscription to Story magazine years ago, back when that excellent quarterly of short fiction was still being published. And I read a story among its numbers, a story by this Griner fellow. The story was called “Follow Me,” and it remains one of my favorite short fictions of all time. I should’ve tracked down more of Griner’s work then – the collection that’s called, actually, Follow Me, for instance. But I didn’t. This novel Second Life is the second thing I’ve read by the author.]

So what we’ve got here is a grisly whodunit that will be solved by following the victim’s dead body through a circuitous route of morgues and labs and nodes of bureaucracy, a route undertaken by a longtime familiar traveler who’s now jeopardizing her entire future by taking step one. A route that leads to somewhere most people never want to go, and where there’s someone most people wouldn’t want to meet even after they’re dead, much less while still alive and able to experience pain. Quite a lot of pain, before the Reaper offers a merciful respite.

Yeah, no, this is one hell of a dark – a relentlessly dark – story. Deliciously so, if you like that sort of thing. If you like a bit of crime-thriller mixed in with your Mary Roach-level exploration of an unsettling area of human industry. If the gruesome reality of what happens to us after we’re reduced to meat is something you’ve wondered about and would like to see a troubled protagonist fight her way through it – toward some sense of redemption, if possible, before death.

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