The bones of the South’s racial past can resurface at any moment, reopening wounds and tormenting souls. This, literally, is the plot of Matthew Guinn’s fine gothic novel “ The Resurrectionist .”
One fall day at the South Carolina Medical College, a construction crew unearths dozens of remains in the cellar of one of the school buildings: bodies of slaves stolen in the Civil War era so that white medical students could study anatomy. Fearful of the damage this discovery could do to the college’s vaunted reputation, the dean, a slick, backslapping operator, assigns Jacob Thacker to rebury the bodies. Jacob is a former internist from the school who’s on probation after a Xanax addiction nearly got him the boot. While waiting desperately to return to medicine, he bides his time as the school’s obedient public affairs officer. But the discovery of these bodies will ruin his week, thrust him into a racial power play and nearly decompose his soul.
Guinn tells a parallel story about the school’s first nine years. That tale begins in 1857, when the college nearly closes on its first day after students discover that they will dissect goats instead of human cadavers. Several students demand their tuition back. But the school’s anatomist, Frederick Augustus Johnston, has a solution. He persuades the college to buy a slave to dig up bodies from a local black cemetery. “People have sentiments about these matters,” Johnston says, “but if they never know the grave is empty, they are just as well off. And the school is a great deal better off.” Be warned: Corpses abound, and as the narrative hurtles forward, the scenes become more ghastly.
The slave hired to do the grave-robbing is an intriguing character named Nemo. Kidnapped from Africa as a young boy, he is an expert with knives and has taught himself to read. Body-snatching brings him wealth, by a slave’s standard. He dresses beautifully and peacocks about town. But it comes at a price: a deep moral quagmire. “In Africa he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits,” Guinn writes, “and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” But as a slave, Nemo has no options. He’ll suffer a great comeuppance in time.
Years later, while rummaging through the college’s archives, Jacob stumbles upon a reference to Nemo and reconstructs his role at the school. “He left a mess behind him,” Jacob says to Mary, his black maid. “I got stuck cleaning it up.”
“Well. Ain’t that a switch,” she replies. “White man cleaning up after a black man.”
That’s the sort of ironic humor that Guinn often deploys to lighten the mood of a ghoulish subject. How Jacob handles this crisis will either help lay the slaves to rest with dignity or allow the South’s horrid past to fester.
Smith is a member of the Book World staff.
By Matthew Guinn
Norton. 282 pp. $25.95