As the HBO television series “Six Feet Under” and Mitch Albom’s nonfiction book Tuesdays with Morrie have shown, the subject of death can be fruitfully plumbed for dramatic potential and the lessons it imparts to the living.
The same is true for Joe O’Connell’s first novel, Evacuation Plan, set against the backdrop of a hospice. O’Connell is a film industry columnist and short story writer who lives in Taylor. He also teaches creative writing at St. Edward’s University and Austin Community College. In 2001, he was one of a small group of writers and visual artists allowed into Hospice Austin’s Christopher House to observe life in the 15-bed facility. The project was the brainchild of Austin artist BennÃ© Rockett, who worked with the staffs of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Christopher House to provide the outsiders an environment that would inspire creativity and educate the public about hospice through art and creative writing. Evacuation Plan is loosely based on conversations O’Connell had with hospice patients, staff, and visitors.
Readers should not expect a sad look at death and dying, O’Connell told the Observer. “I’m really more interested in the stories of individual people,” he says. “I was really intrigued by what brought all these people to this place. Not just people who are dying, but what are the stories behind the nurse who’s behind the desk? Why is he or she doing this job? What is the secret that the dying child has that the dying parent doesn’t know, and vice versa?”
O’Connell aims to answer these questions partly through his semiautobiographical protagonist, Matt, a screenwriter who gets permission to wander the halls of a hospice in hopes of landing an idea for his next screenplay. But Matt is not prepared for this environment. He gets goose bumps when a patient suggests that he move a detached artificial leg from a chair so he can sit down. “The shoe and sock on it creep me out as I drop it by the wall,” thinks Matt. When he shakes the patient’s hand, Matt is surprised that “it’s warm to the touch. Not what I expected from a dying man.” When he tries to assist a woman struggling to reach for a piece of candy, a nurse swats his hand, scolding, “She doesn’t need your help.” And Matt is unnerved by how often the names of current patients get replaced on a dry erase board.
Matt spends much of his time in the room of patient Charlie Wright, an elderly man with advanced diabetes and other ailments. The relationship proves to be Matt’s psychological salvation. Despite being close to death, Charlie gladly assumes the role of Matt’s surrogate father. He sees right away that the screenplay writer is hiding something from himself. Drawing from his background as an architect, Charlie tells Matt that what he is really looking for is not a story idea, but a model-presumably for life-and explains that a model can be either closed or open. “A closed structure doesn’t change,” he says. “That’s death. An open structure has three dimensions, like a model house, and is open to change.”
Charlie, on the other hand, seems to have accepted his fate. When Matt asks how he feels about death, Charlie says, “By golly, I guess I am going to die. Imagine that … no worries, folks. I’ve got it mostly figured out.” Through his talks with Charlie, Matt comes to terms with what has been holding him back in life-his inability to forgive his own cruel father before he died.
“He’s going in there looking for a plot, and really the story is his own story,” O’Connell says.
Checkerboarding the chapters about Matt are short stories told from the viewpoints of people he meets in the hospice. These stories often take place well in the past, sometimes when the subjects were children. O’Connell says he modeled this structure after Tim O’Brien’s novel, July, July, about a group of 1969 graduates who come together for their 30th reunion. One story, about a hospice nurse, describes her stoic attempts to raise a poor family in a broken-down apartment complex. Another is about the facility’s cook, who had a serious crush on a girl when he was very young. In another tale, we learn how a male nurse used to adore listening to his sister talk about her dreams.
“The stories are really about looking for that big moment that impacted people and changed their lives and turned them into who they are, and my idea is that we all have that story in us that made us who we are, that drew us to this point. And at the end of our lives, those will be the moments we will cling to,” O’Connell says.
The chapters about Matt and the short stories demonstrate O’Connell’s ability to develop sympathetic, true-to-life characters using intriguing details and compelling dialogue. The stories remind us of those times when a brief encounter with a stranger left us wondering about that person’s past. In Evacuation Plan, O’Connell satisfies that curiosity. At one point, Matt catches a glimpse of a visitor leaving a patient’s room, someone who has bloodshot eyes, wrinkled clothes, and breath that “reeks of stale beer.” Next comes the man’s story, “The Guy in the Hall,” which describes what happened when the man, named Patrick, was in his late 50s. His parents are dead, and he reluctantly moves back into their old house after having “let my life slip by in a swift flow of idiotic failures.” While walking at night, he experiences a series of unexplained, epiphanous moments as he encounters, and talks to, his former selves. The first is a young boy playing cowboys and Indians. Another is a young man driving a hotrod who talks about his first love, a young woman Patrick knows will become the teenager’s wife.
Regrettably, Charlie is the only patient the reader gets to know well, and only two short stories are told through the eyes of patients. O’Connell says this was intentional because he did not want to be in the position of having to reveal secrets about death. “The only people who are going to know that are people who are dying,” he says, “so I can’t pretend that I have those answers.” There is still much O’Connell could have revealed about dying, including agony, frustration, inspiration, and sadness, or the relief that comes with imminent death. Because Evacuation Plan is set in a hospice, readers are likely braced-and probably eager-to learn about those feelings and how they might affect a person on the verge of death.
Evacuation Plan also lacks cohesion. While there are, as O’Connell points out, common themes throughout the novel, such as grace, forgiveness, death, and father-son relationships, they do not provide enough literary glue to hold the book together. There are two tracks unfolding-the chapters that describe Matt’s present-day journey and the short stories that describe the pasts of people he sees in the hospice. For the most part, Matt has only brief, superficial interactions with these individuals. Furthermore, the short stories do not indicate what led those characters to the hospice. The result is that the reader-while caught up with Matt’s struggle-does not feel compelled to venture into the pasts of many of the characters in the short stories.
The opposite is true with Charlie for example, whom readers get to know well through his conversations with Matt. Here, the reader is eager to get inside Charlie’s head, and his story at the end of the book-about his desire for forgiveness and the ability to fly-is a treat.
It is through O’Connell’s memorable characters that Evacuation Plan achieves what seems to be his main goal-to show that we can learn a lot about life in a place meant for death.
Janet Heimlich is a freelance writer living in Austin. She has adapted one of the short stories in Evacuation Plan to a play, which will be performed in January.