A TRAIL OF HEART'S BLOOD WHEREVER WE GO By Robert Olmstead Random House. 401 pp. $19.95
FOLKS in the hamlet of Inverawe, N.H., count themselves lucky to have young Eddie Ryan. Old Bushway, the previous funeral director, stole fillings and rings from dead bodies but no one could prove it. Eddie's house doubles as the mortuary, and to his clients he's a new breed of mortician, a sensitive, thirty-something kind of guy. Ever since he moved to New Hampshire from Syracuse with his wife, Mary, and two young children, Eddie's been counseling the bereaved by referring them to the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and drawing them out like a skilled psychotherapist. He keeps a journal. In college he wanted to be a poet, and he slips his own haiku into the clothes of the newly deceased for their journey beyond.
To his wife and to his buddy, Cody, Eddie is one of the living dead. He's obsessed with his late, alcoholic father, and drinks too much himself. In Vietnam, he worked up six American soldiers a day, seven days a week, learning his trade all too well. He's not a religious man, and a large fraction of seemingly meaningless deaths, a steady stream of cadavers are crushing him like a ton of earth. Besides, it seems that "all his best work is gone or buried."
In this, his second novel, New Hampshire native Robert Olmstead, who teaches at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, examines a small place and the psyche of one man through the unblinking lens of an undertaker's profession. But like Eddie Ryan, there is nothing straight-arrow about Inverawe. Apparently dead, an old woman is brought into the mortuary, only to greet Eddie the next morning and make breakfast for his kids. The town doctor, a Vietnamese refugee who laces children's lollipops with a sedative, is also stealing hearts from fresh corpses. Killed in a wreck, a truckdriver is given absolution and anointed at the scene with a can of motor oil.
Reacting to news of a friend's death, a man says to Eddie: "What's life anyways? We've all got life. The key is being bigger than life. Bigger than life itself." The words could describe Olmstead's literary philosophy. To achieve the effect in A Trail of Heart's Blood Wherever We Go, Olmstead stirs up a heady wine of mystical rumination, outlandish comedy and stark realism, creating a world without boundaries between life and death, between the real and unreal, a world that increasingly mirrors Eddie Ryan's state of mind as he tries to make sense of a life that whirls madly on ice like the car his friend Cody drives onto a frozen lake.
Some of the brew is exhilarating fiction. Olmstead loves to stage puckish mayhem, as when overzealous volunteer fire-fighters destroy buildings they are trying to save, or an animal park catches fire, loosing exotic creatures into the New Hampshire forest. His hyperbolically comic imagination could make the dead laugh in a morgue, heaping detail upon zany detail in giant bonfires of absurdity. When 485-pound D.A.R. member Isabel Huguenot dies, Eddie faces a challenge bigger than any he had at Khe Sanh. Before she died, an ambulance crew removed a picture window and took "her out with a forklift, bed and all." A lowboy trailer hauls her to the funeral home, where Eddie has been measuring door openings and dreading this moment. "Maybe we could take her to Pittsburgh," he tells his wife, "cremate her in a blast furnace." After Eddie works up a "five-hundred-pound naked woman" in the embalming room, cracking her jaw so her dentures will fit, "ten men lift the casketed body on the lowboy" and Mrs. Huguenot is buried in a double-wide, concrete-reinforced plot.
Olmstead is an Errol Flynn with the mother tongue, swashbuckling his way through many a pun and loaded name. On the lowboy, Mrs. Huguenot is "enjoying the ride of her death," and, recognizing Eddie's overly soft heart as a businessman, Mrs. Huguenot's husband, Dome, tells him that "you get stiffed." The man who owns the animal park is Walter Disney. Two close friends are named Mary Rooney and Mary Looney, there is a Rose Kennedy, and the best machine operator in Inverawe is named Ferris Wheel. FOR ALL THE fun and invention, Olmstead's serious themes never quite dovetail into a satisfying whole. He's interested in death -- but no one death hits hard enough for grief. He's interested in male freedom and friendship -- but Cody, a renegade logger, is a poor man's Ken Kesey or Jack Kerouac character, more icon than flesh. He's interested in marriage and fatherhood and being a responsible adult -- but Mary doesn't get enough limelight or sheer feminine idiosyncrasy to matter much, the kids are cute or overwritten, and Eddie's resolve to love his wife as if his world depends on it comes with a dramatic whimper, not a bang.
And the story begins to drift. In a sense, the author is a victim of his own powers. A 20-20 observer of detail, Olmstead could probably write crackling descriptions of a blank sheet of paper; the staging of his scenes can be singular, his dialogue true-to-life quirky. But without the urgency of narrative drive, the talent turns doughy as the novel goes on; the angst-filled scenes run long and talky, intelligent but tedious.
That said, the fact remains that many writers, finding themselves suddenly blessed with Olmstead's gifts, would think they had died and gone to heaven. Frank Levering is a Virginia writer and orchardist.