by Samuel Ligon
Leapfrog Press, 2016
Samuel Ligon’s debut novel, Among the Dead and Dreaming, begins with two deaths. The rest that follows feels like a dream. Told through multiple first-person narrators, Dreaming begins with a motorcycle accident on Long Island that claims the lives of Cynthia and Kyle, who may have having an affair, then seeps, like blood through a cloth, through the minds of those closet to them—Cynthia’s boyfriend Mark, Kyle’s girlfriend Nikki, Nikki’s daughter Alina—before branching out like spokes into mothers, fathers, employers, even an unborn fetus.
And also the baggage they carry with them, such Burke, the brother of Nikki’s dead ex-boyfriend Cash (and Alina’s father). It is hard to delve too deeply into the plot without spoiling it, so organically it builds, but as the backstory of Cynthia and Kyle and Mark and Nikki comes alive in the different narrators—the suspected infidelity, the jealousy, issues of class, regrets, the pasts from which they are running—Ligon ratchets it up a gear into the present, when Burke, who is fresh out of prison, suspects Nikki might have had something to do with Cash’s death and sets off to find her (unnervingly accomplished a little too easily, in the age of Google). The narrators who have mostly served to piece together the past then are thrust in a real-time, knowingly and unknowingly actors in Burke’s twisted plot of revenge.
One of Ligon’s great strengths as a storyteller is his unapologetic and masterful use of first person (at least 15 different characters are revealed, all distinguished by their name at the top of each chapter). Where a less-skilled writer would falter, Ligon shows not only differences in voice, class (Nikki and her mother), and maturity (Nikki’s daughter Alina is all the gradations of a confused, passionate, and sometimes bratty 14-year-old), but also exposes the delusions that these characters harbor—from the unhinged but self-righteous Burke to hard, emotionally guarded Nikki, who lives in fear but tries to convince herself and others that she is always one step ahead of everyone.
On a cursory read, it might feel like Ligon has written two different books—in the first half using the multiple first-person narrator to deconstruct two lives largely unknowable to the reader (since Cynthia and Kyle die in the first few pages) while in the second half using the same conceit to create an ending that is more scary thriller than character study, but somehow Ligon pulls it off. And maybe that’s why the title, Among the Dead and Dreaming is so perfect; we can never know the complete reality of our own lives. Each person connected to Cynthia and Kyle (and to each other) comprise the prism of their realities. And they, who are still living, forge stubbornly along, trapped in their own dream of their reality, thinking they have everything under control, thinking they actually know whether they’re living in a fairy tale or nightmare.