Thursday, February 2, 2012
She was teaching a classroom full of doting high school students when something overcame her. After one of the students gave her the right answer, she smiled and nodded in praise but then keep nodding like a broken record. And then she fell without her arms to break her fall, face first on the floor.
The students immediately rushed to the front of the classroom with everyone expressing their concern, but also afraid to touch her. It takes a varsity football player to break their spell. He reaches down and gently picks her up, and begins carrying her to the nurse's office while a few students run ahead of him.
Untouchable is an exploration that goes beyond loss.
Whitley wasn't exactly sure when he started to doubt this story. There were many times he could have confirmed it, including the funeral that many of her former students attended. He never did, silenced by his own grief that the lamp in his life was gone.
When he finally does start adding everything up, Whitley concludes his mother might be alive and confides in his closest, if not only, friend. The solution, they decide, is making a covenant with God. And from that day forward, "The Kid" who used to delight his mother with hours of mock "talk show" interviews and impressions, decides to never speak another word until his mom comes home.
Whitley, who isn't especially popular to begin with, attracts the worst kind of attention in sixth grade with this decision. The rest of his classmates resign him to the ranks of the untouchable, a badge of contagious freakishness shared only by his friend and one other girl. Unless it is to taunt and bully them unmercifully, he is avoided.
It doesn't help that his father is worth whispering about either. Dramatically different in his build, David is tall, keeps a buzz cut, and sports two full sleeves of tattoos that mark the passage of time. His on-call job, with most calls coming in the dead of night, is to clean up after crime scenes and suicides — wipe everything away so the living will never know what happened or hopefully forget if they know.
The work is tiring, relentless, and not easy to cope with unless you erase the meaning behind it. The only thing worse than removing any biohazards is attempting to console panicked motel managers or devastated family members, which is why talking to clients is usually handled by the most experienced member of any two- or three-man crew.
The ease of never understanding anyone, even people you see every day.
A primary caution for readers, especially those looking for action to move the story forward, is that it often only feels that something is about to happen. O'Connor chooses to keep any revelations close to the vest, placing the psychological transformation above any physical action.
Thus, Untouchable is like unfolding a crumpled piece of paper that has been carelessly discarded. Little bits and pieces of delicate and well-drawn scenes reveal insights into every character, including some scenes from the past that shed more light on Lucy.
Where the novel truly stands out isn't about coping with loss as much as an exploration into how well we know people (or even ourselves). And because we really don't know anyone, perhaps the decisions we make to protect those who don't need to be protected, hide what doesn't need to be hidden, or forget what cannot be forgotten has unintended and long-lasting consequences.
A few graphs about the debut novelist Scott O'Connor.
Although Untouchable is O'Connor's first novel, he did write a novella, Among Wolves, in 2004. It received considerable praise from critics, labeling him as an author to watch. With Untouchable, no one was wrong. His characters are impeccably drawn and every thread is tied together at the end.
Untouchable By Scott O'Connor Touches 5.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
While Untouchable is sometimes mired down in its own detailed depth, and the abrupt shifts between David and Whitley are more effective in some places than in others, it's easy to become lost in this well-written work of literature. As you get to know every character between the cover, you can't help but wonder who you might not know when you lift your eyes from the page.
Untouchable by Scott O'Connor is available at Barnes & Noble. The novel can be found on Amazon. You can also find the book on iBooks and the audio version on iTunes. The audiobook is read by Bronson Pinchot, whose voice captures the tone of the book if not the characters. It recently won an audiobook fiction prize from Publisher's Weekly.