Skip to main content

Back From the Dead


Back From the Dead

There is a hazing ritual practiced by some fraternities that
involves blindfolding a pledge, putting him in the middle of a room
and subjecting him to a good whacking with two-by-fours
administered by his soon-to-be "brothers." The hapless pledge has
no idea where the next whack is going to come from, and the
anticipation of a smarting blow is, by all accounts, almost worse
than the actual delivery. I never went through this rite of
passage. Having read BACK FROM THE DEAD, however, I have a rough
idea about what it feels like to get smacked upside the head
repeatedly and never see it coming. The only difference is that I
never wanted BACK FROM THE DEAD to end.

Chris Petit, the author of BACK FROM THE DEAD as well as 1997's THE
PSALM KILLER, is a filmmaker. He is also an absolute, wonderfully
brilliant maniac. You can call BACK FROM THE DEAD a mystery, a
parable, a history, a suspense novel, a twisted romance, or all of
the above --- or none of the above. And you'd be at least partially
right on all counts. But you'd be wrong, too.

BACK FROM THE DEAD begins with Youselli, a New York City cop,
assigned to special duty at a Long Island party being hosted by
McMahon, a fading rock star whose only creativity lies in his
ability to find new ways to flush his life down the toilet.
Youselli, divorced and disillusioned, is sliding through his life
and job without interest or ambition. McMahon retains Youselli to
investigate the source of some mysterious letters he is receiving
that profess to be written by a girl who died 15 years previously.
Youselli is simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by McMahon, often
for the same reasons, but, intrigued by the mystery of the letters,
agrees to investigate. The letters themselves are fascinating, a
combination of love and hate, anger and joy, laughter and sadness,
with strong sexual overtones and, most disturbingly, an air of
almost irrefutable authenticity. Youselli finds himself not only
increasingly attracted by the letters, but also influenced by them,
to the extent that he soon becomes obsessed with the sender on a
number of different levels. He fails all the while to see what the
letters, the investigation, and his client are doing to him
personally, though there is some question as to whether he would
care if he did. Youselli's quest ultimately leads him to a destiny
that, although wholly unpredictable, in hindsight is preordained
almost from the opening pages of the book.

With the exception of one or two of the characters that inhabit
BACK FROM THE DEAD there is no one, including Youselli, who is
truly likable. Yet, for inexplicable reasons, they are all oddly
attractive while being thoroughly repulsive. These are not people
you would want in your homes, or watching your children, or even
sitting next to you on a bus; yet they are fascinating to observe.
Petit's characters, while functioning as a subtle freakshow, also
create a fascinating historical subtext. McMahon and his wife live
in the infamous Dakota Apartments, a building that appears to have
been built upon cursed earth. Additionally, those of you who are up
on the hidden history of rock 'n' roll and the subculture of the
'60s will see traces of Brian Epstein and Anita Pallenberg (and a
tip of the Hartlaub hat if you know who that is without
looking up her name) and will have great fun going through the book
figuring out who the real-world model is for each character. But
the best part of this book is reading it and finding the facts and
the rules changing almost page by page, and being repeatedly rocked
by it. You'll never hear the board coming at you until it's too
late. But you'll ask for more, and keep reading.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011

Back From the Dead
by Chris Petit

  • Publication Date: March 20, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0679451277
  • ISBN-13: 9780679451273