The Beautiful Dead End review by Karen McElrea

Prairie Fire Review of Books, Spring 2003
Review by Karen McElrea

Outside of places of worship, the immortal soul doesn't get mentioned much. We routinely overhear discussions in public places of intimate ailments, sexual idiosyncrasies and criminal acts, but the soul — that's taboo, too personal. 

The Beautiful Dead End, on the other hand, speaks of nothing but; specifically, what happens to it after you've shed your shell. Clint Hutzulak has taken difficult, ethereal matter and made it impressively tangible, weaving his version of the afterdeath into a novel that's an unsettling mix of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman and David Lynch's Twin Peaks.

Stace has not been a good human being — or a happy one. In fact, "it feels like he's been pissed off about something his whole life." (22) He has irreparably damaged the woman he loved and his criminal resumé now includes murder. He's a man who, after hiding a body in a woodpile, and while carrying the victim's baby to his stolen car, felt "fine and clear-headed and...had a hard-on." (74) He seems like a natural-born killer, but there are indications that guilt has been eating at him faster than he can push it away, and that the seeds for his apparent amorality were sown early. 

The story begins when Stace ends, overdosed in a motel bathroom, his last act providing a post-mortem erection for his drugmate Tanya, who is also his ex-wife's friend. Even this scene is rendered oddly beautiful, as much a spiritual as a sexual act, as Tanya licks a honeyed substance from his skin and speculates on his spirit's whereabouts. Then, while his body is being dragged off in one direction, we follow Stace's essence as it embarks on its own weird, beautiful journey. 

Hutzulak has given serious thought to this subject, and his peculiarly credible vision will give pause to those holding the firmest of beliefs in the Sunday School image of heaven. Really, who's to say the holding pen for souls in transition might not be an old fishing lodge? And why couldn't an unkempt, mint-sucking man in sweatpants with a Polaroid be appointed as your spiritual guide and documentarian? 

With his exceptional eye for detail, Hutzulak immerses us in some vividly painful scenes — notably when Stace visits his ex-wife and is compelled to face the consequences of never living beyond the moment, and the truths that eluded him — one being that their relationship was "so complicated and yet so simple that they have spent years getting to know what they recognized in the first five minutes." (161) 

The Beautiful Dead End makes us feel we're glimpsing an intimate secret, shadowing someone on a trip we're not sure we want to experience, even vicariously. But to some extent we're all in it with Stace, who "knows how it ends, but not how to get there." (75) Stace's journey offers a clue: perhaps the more closely you track your life's progress as you live it, the less hard work you'll have to do later. And you might want to take some warm socks with you. 

Copyright 2003 by Karen McElrea