The Globe & Mail, 12 September, 1992
Healing the Dead
By D. F. Bailey
Douglas & McIntyre, 182 pages, $16.95
There are trick endings—and then there are trick beginnings. Right off the bat in D. F. Bailey’s new novel, Healing the Dead, you know someone named Brad is going to die.
Brad Watson is only a little boy, seven or eight years old at most. He dies in a basement playroom filled with no one but other children in the middle of an innocent game of dress-up in that most innocent of years, 1956.
The possible means of his inevitable dispatch flash by with quickening intensity. There is a dreadful lightning storm outside. Brad runs through it without incident. He brings from his home next door a bag which includes his father’s war treasures: medals and buttons and a German dagger with a serrated edge, “perfect for cutting through enemy bone.” The knife edge is allowed to glisten awhile in your imagination, but nothing, mercifully, comes of it.
You start reading Healing the Dead with a gasp and never get a proper chance to exhale. The first chapter ends with not one, but two bangs. Little Rose Sykes, playing mobster moll, pulls the trigger of the putative toy gun not once, but twice. It is the second bullet that kills Brad Watson.
That second bullet ricochets through the lives of the Sykes family—Harris, Catrina and their three children, Jayne, Rose and David. Their disintegration, singly and collectively, over a period of 13 years makes for a psychologically compelling story. Like the single bullet from the Ortgies 7.65-calibre automatic that Seymour Glass put through his right temple in J. D. Salinger’s short story, A Perfect Day for Banana Fish, it is an agent of harrowing change.
The Sykes are a sort of white-bread Glass family. The parents are far from retired vaudevillians—Harris works for the Canadian government as an international economist and is often out of town, while Catrina is a housewife who learns to self-medicate from the liquor cabinet.
But what reminded me of Salinger’s timeless stories and nouvellas was the relationship between David and his sister Rose. Like Zooey trying to talk Fanny out of her nervous breakdown, David lives in anticipation of Rose’s next step toward madness. When Rose takes to phoning David before daybreak every night, I fully expected him to say to her, as one of the Glass children once did, “Keep me up till three in the morning because all your stars are out and for no other reason.”
Bailey’s omniscient narrator turns on a dime. He writes very convincingly from the point of view of all his characters, bringing us close in on Catrina collapsed into sobs against the steering wheel of her Buick Electra in a mall parking lot, or Jayne in exhilaration standing upon the back seat of her boy friend’s motorcycle at a biker’s rally. But while he handles the women—both as girls and adults—more than credibly, it’s apparent that his primary empathy lies with young David.
David is a very Baudrillardian hero, literally connected to reality only through its image. From his Kodak Brownie Bulls-Eye to the sophisticated 35mm Canon that winds up being smashed against a window grate, his lens is both his eyes and his soul:
“He found the camera added a certain richness to seeing the world: the split image in the range finder, the focus, the blown-up enlargements. With a camera he could see things that didn’t appear to him in any other way. And, of course, it helped him remember. The pictures remembered the truth, the exact way life happened without the soft filters of nostalgia and hope blurring the hard edges of reality. The facts of Rose’s punctured hand and Brad’s dead body stretched on the basement floor.”
Of course David discovers that even the objective “truth” of photographs can be manipulated, and, in learning to manipulate that truth himself, he arrives at a disquieting maturity. It adds a great deal to the complexity of this coming-of-age novel that is played against a backdrop of the social and moral upheaval of the sixties, and that the Sykeses pick up and move their family turmoil from Toronto to the churn of Manhattan.
This is Bailey’s second novel. His previous work, Fire Eyes, was nominated for the 1987 W. H. Smith / Books in Canada First Novel Award. I’m not aware that there are any prizes specifically for second novels, but if there were, I’d certainly consider Healing the Dead to be in the running. —Eve Drobot