Rubbernecker is the second of Bauer’s books that I’ve read. The first was Blacklands, which told the intriguing story of the relationship between a teenage boy and his brother’s imprisoned murderer. There were some aspects I didn’t like – including a seemingly easy prison escape – but otherwise it was a polished, thrilling ride. It was one of the reasons I picked up Rubbernecker, along with the blurb – which had me hooked me as soon as it mentioned anatomy and dissection. I’ve long been fascinated with the human body and surgery, and spent too much time as a kid wanting to be a pathologist when I grew up. I blame too much Quincy M.E., staying up late on a Monday night to watch Jack Klugman growl his way through another suspicious death.
Rubbernecker is a book that deftly juggles its different storylines, which come together as the novel progresses. The main narrative concerns a young man with Asperger’s, Patrick Fort, who is going to university to study anatomy. This is partly an attempt to understand what happened to his father, who was killed in a car accident several years previously. Patrick is a young man obsessed by death – he collects dead animals, and writes in a notebook the names of race horses who have been killed on the track. However, as he begins his studies alongside a group of medical students, he finds himself drawn into an altogether different quest.
I found the scenes set in the dissecting room to be utterly fascinating, and learnt a lot about a process which is both gruesome and compelling. One scene in particular I’ve found it difficult to forget: towards the end of the novel, Patrick finds himself in the dissecting room at night, having broken in. Hiding from a shadowy figure, he conceals himself in one of the nearby refrigerators, inside a large plastic receptacle known as a ‘skin bin’. The name is enough to conjure up a queasy image, but Bauer takes us right inside the bin with Patrick with this extraordinary piece of description:
‘The stench was unbelievable – even for someone who had spent almost six months in the close company of the dead. The bins had been emptied of the bulk of their contents, but had not yet been washed out, and the sides were slick and gobby with fatty deposits, while the bottom held a half-inch of stinking bodily juices that seeped through Patrick’s trainers and thick socks, and rose coldy between his toes. He retched and then swallowed the vomit, desperate not to add to the contents of the bin.’
Yeuch. Patrick’s predicament is made much worse by his Asperger’s, which has given him a pathological fear of dirt (in one amusing – and crucial – scene, he spends much of the evening at a student party washing up, and cleaning out the cutlery drawer). But Bauer is also astute enough to ensure that Patrick’s condition is not his only defining characteristic. The reader watches Patrick change and develop through the book, as he learns more about what happened to his father; and he ends the book a very different person to the Patrick which began it.
Despite the gruesomeness, there is also great humanity in a book that is largely concerned with death, and what happens after we die – both to our physical bodies, and to the people we leave behind. One of the other storylines concerns a coma patient, Sam Galen, who is only gradually aware of what is happening around him. Lying immobile in a hospital bed, he recalls a family holiday on the Gower peninsula with his wife and daughter, describing with great tenderness the time they flew a kite:
‘And then suddenly we’re holding nothing but falling string, as the kite breaks free and soars into the Wedgwood sky like something that knows where it’s going, and can’t wait to get there. As it disappears into a dot, Lexi slips her little hand into mine and says, ‘Look at it go, Daddy!’ – and my heart is overwhelmed with joy, because watching it go is better than holding it back, even if we’ll never see it again.’
This scene made me think of my own daughters, their own little hands, and those moments of shared joy that seem to come out of nowhere, and disappear just as quickly. It is these tender moments, which are scattered through the book like little jewels, that for me made it particularly memorable, and made me pause in my reading. They provide real texture and contrast to the medical scenes, meaning that Rubbernecker is a book with real heart – in both the literal and figurative senses of the word.