I only knew Bringing Out the Dead as a Scorsese movie — a very disappointing Scorsese movie with an inert script by Paul Shrader which featured Nicolas Cage as a tormented New York paramedic.
It came from what I think of as Scorsese's wilderness years which began after the excellent Casino and now, thankfully, have ended with the even more excellent, in fact downright magnificent, Wolf of Wall Street.
I wasn't even aware, or I had forgotten, that Bringing Out the Dead was based on a novel. So when I discovered a copy of the book by Joe Connelly I was intrigued enough to buy it. I'm really glad I did.
I was gripped from the first few pages where the ambulance crew is summoned to treat a man with cardiac arrest. His family is desperately trying to give him CPR and the narrator bleakly informs us that they're wasting their time because they're performing it on a bed — you have to do CPR on a hard surface like the floor.
Joe Connelly really was a paramedic and his priceless inside knowledge infuses the novel with authenticity. He describes the way the steering wheel of the ambulance vibrates when the life support equipment is turned on in the back of the "bus".
And he writes beautifully, too. Here he is describing receiving intravenous meds: "the drugs were cold, like steel worms crawling over my elbow." And he has a nice dry wit. "The city that never sleeps had taken a pill." The book is full of a feeling of doom, very effectively evoked: "I watched these events unfold like a twister across the plain."
If there is a flaw to the novel it is that it's excessively bleak. The superb writing and the humour never quite compensate for the defeated nature of the hero and the hopeless situation all around him. The story is too unremittingly nightmarish — and too focused on a single individual — to constitute an urban MASH. But that doesn't stop this being a notable and impressive novel... particularly impressive since it's a first novel.
And vastly more memorable than the movie — though I'm going to give that a second chance now, on the strength of this outstanding book.
(Image credits: rather thin pickings at Good Reads. The orange cover at the beginning of the post — the edition I read — is from Amazon.)