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Starting all over by destroying the past

Samuel Ligon's debut novel, Safe in Heaven Dead, is an unflinching study of a character determined to begin life anew by destroying his old one -- if only the guilt and shame of destruction hadn't, as the title suggests, killed him in the process.And as far as the novel's plot is concerned, he's plenty dead; Robert Elgin, the protagonist, has his ticket punched by a midtown bus in the opening sentence while chasing down his last chance at happiness. The remaining 250 pages are the backdrop of Elgin's demise, as well as a testament to Ligon's writing strengths.

The story alternates point of view between Elgin's two lives: one charts his allegedly perfect marriage -- college sweetheart, two beautiful children, steady job in politics -- and its rapid dissolution; the other chronicles his attempt to forge a new beginning with an equally unlikely candidate, a Columbia grad student moonlighting as a top-dollar escort.

Elgin's world begins imploding when he's hand-picked to lead fixed labor negotiations designed to grease his patron politician's run for governor. The author's background as a former union labor negotiator instills these scenes with a realism that propels the reader through some of the story's less natural sections. In crisp, terse dialogue, and with crooked characters whose menacing aura is palpable -- including one known simply as "the Printer" -- Ligon ventures into noir territory without straining credulity.

Even before he's given this "radioactive information," however, Elgin has been questioning his role as father/husband/ breadwinner. Where once he'd been excited by his "insider" status, he now wonders "when and how he'd become so weak and afraid" to switch careers.

The worst is yet to come. Elgin's wife, Laura, discovers that their five-year-old girl has been sexually molested by a 12-year-old neighborhood boy. In the fallout, Elgin worries that his wife's obsessions with revenge, rape specialists and family therapists is doing more damage than good to their daughter, and that "the cure will kill them all."

The resulting friction between husband and wife reveals deep fissures in their relationship. Ligon does an expert job conveying the tension, in this scene describing a typical argument through Elgin's weary words: "It was the same ground, the same hole they'd been digging for months, their necks tethered to a pole, walking around and around it, shouting at each other's backs, digging the rut with their plodding, idiotic shuffle."

A seemingly inevitable trial separation ensues, Elgin "surrendering" without much of a fight. In fact, he makes no effort at all to see his children. At work, he begins asking "why" a lot, to the consternation of his boss. He rents a dingy New York hotel room and rambles aimlessly through the city's boroughs, haunting libraries and all-night diners, and riding the subways wherever they happen to be headed. Months pass in much the same manner. Like a middle-aged Holden Caulfield, Elgin has simply become disgusted with everything that once defined his success and, indeed, his life.

Elgin seems bound for suicide -- "somehow he'd become entirely irrelevant to (his) children, to himself" -- until he determines that in his current state it would only be "redundant."

But while going through the motions at his job, Elgin learns that his corrupt superiors have been skimming off the top of the County Employees' Health, Welfare and Benefits fund. Hoping to again become "an actor in his own life," Elgin makes his own $400,000 withdrawal.

He uses some of the money to combat his loneliness, hiring an escort, Carla, for the companionship rather than the sex (at first). As unlikely as it seems, the two develop a relationship despite Carla's well-earned mistrust ("Men were so transparent and easy to manipulate") and Elgin's blooming guilt about feeling good ("His job was to suffer forever").

So what exactly motivates Carla to fall in love -- beyond not being objectified -- is never made clear. After all, Elgin's emotional waffling, as well as the provenance of his bankroll, makes him something less than an ideal catch. Along with some cliched and clumsy sex scenes, the love story is the novel's only real weak link.

Eventually the twin narratives converge. Unfortunately, Elgin has again convinced himself that no amount of new love or hope will release him from the emotional debt accrued from leaving his family. So when Carla informs him that she is pregnant and his response is less than enthusiastic, she understandably bails out. Elgin engineers yet another emotional 180-degree turn, but by then there's a bus with his name all over it. . .

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