Michael Lesy’s “The Forbidden Zone” tries to get beyond metaphor, allegory and parable to discover what death is ; a thoughtful book that plots a difficult path between the icy abstractions of philosophy and the metaphors of art and literature. The author in his own words is alternately a seeker, a climber, a searcher after those whose work it is to see death before and not turn away. Lesy implies that we wait for the undertakers, like the two he visits in Charleston, S.C., because we can only face the deceased after the body has been tidied up and transformed by cosmetics, clay and preservatives. We wait on death until it takes a form that we can accept.
In a series of dramatized interviews with people whose work brings them into daily contact with death--pathologists, homicide detectives, slaughterhouse workers and men who are led to take human life, like murderers and mercenaries--Lesy hopes to confront his own fears about his aged father’s failing health. Where some travel for escape, he goes back and forth across America trying to find the source of his terror in the face of his father’s illness. He is paradoxically running away from imminent death and getting closer to it by inoculating himself against the suddenness of loss; like Charles de Gaulle eating a daily dose of arsenic to guard himself against being poisoned. As Phillip Lazar, one of the Charleston undertakers, explains, “To survive poison, he experienced it. A little death every morning to live through the big one.”
“The Forbidden Zone” is the record of this journey of preparation. The travel journal form relieves the subject of some of its darkness. In each case, the traveler’s destination is not an exotic sight, in the manner of D. H. Lawrence, Jan Morris or Paul Theroux, but a place where dying and death is an everyday fact. The author’s fine reporting and eye for telling detail provides the reader an opportunity to engage his subject from the clinical insouciance of the medical pathologists to the drama of detectives investigating horrifying murders. As in his earlier “Wisconsin Death Trip,” Lesy is drawn to the macabre. He understands that our natural aversion to death contains its double that draws us to smash what Ahab called “pasteboard masks,” to comprehend the mystery of death’s inevitability. Lesy’s impulse is an exaggeration of the common desire to “rubber neck” at a highway accident, to get closer to the very thing.
Dr. O’Brian and Detective Schultz are two who meet death as a part of their daily routine. The author employs them as informants and records their habits--actions that have over time become unexceptional for them but remain startling to an outsider. He observes O’Brian’s assistants eviscerate a patient, taking out the man’s innards, “in one piece like an engine block.” He smells the formaldehyde, hears the buzz of saws, the cracking of bones and touches a corpse, cold like a stone. Lesy tries to model his own dissection of his subject on the pathologists who insist on “ seeing the evidence.” He goes as far as to buy the “Color Atlas of the Human Body,” a photographic study of the body that he “could hardly bear to look at” and carefully studies a cadaver he names Al. “Al wasn’t my father and he hadn’t been my friend, but he looked like a man to me. Even if he was silent, he was resonant: Even if he was still, I could hear him.” He steadily begins to look at the very things he thought he could not bear. “Even though I knew Al was dead, I started talking to him. Not aloud of course.” But he is not quickly cured of his natural aversion to the corpse and compensates by imagining that the body on the autopsy table has life. O’Brian, in contrast, has trained himself to be reconciled and detached. He holds Al’s pituitary gland in his hand “like a gem merchant examining an emerald.”
The police must also deal coolly with death. Homicide detectives arrive at a crime scene before the body has been transported to the clinical environment of the physicians and pathologists. Death here exists alone, objectified and vivid. Along on a call to a suicide scene, Lesy watches the police fish a young man’s body out of the trash. A little earlier, the youth had balanced himself on the edge of the dumpster behind his father’s sporting-goods store, put a .357 magnum to his temple and fired. The bloody, violated body was still linked to the act that had destroyed it, a scene prior to any ennobling soliloquies. The detectives make a fetish of such details; each has his own lurid “collection” of portraits from crime scenes. Lesy does not make the connection, but these photographs are the police equivalent of the doctor’s anatomical atlas. To look at the stark unrelated images of murdered people, like a doctor studying a photographic map of the body, was a way to protect against what O’Brian called the “whole gestalt.”
To avoid getting too involved, all of Lesy’s subjects find a way to distance themselves from their jobs. The police use gallows’ humor and claim an inability to be surprised at anything. Detective Schultz tells him that “People do strange things. As far as I’m concerned, a body’s about the same as a burnt-out Studebaker.” Workers in an Omaha slaughterhouse use music to calm the animals and mechanized language--"beef kill” instead of slaughterhouse and “kill floor” instead of “pit"--to describe where they work. By applying a sharp blow to the animal’s head with a steel rod propelled by compressed air, men on the kill floor methodically “exterminate” the cattle three at a time in a crowded pen. In contrast, the shochets (kosher butchers) kill insulated from their brutal actions by religion. They slaughter animals according to strict Jewish law. “The blade must be without a flaw; its edge must be perfect, since a nick or a tear is always more painful than a cut. The whole purpose is to kill the animal so swiftly that it feels no pain.” Protection from the act of imposing death arises from fidelity to the sanctified habits of the past. The shochets in their own mind are not killers but, like their knives or halefs , those who “from-life-to-death-transform.”
The mercenary also distances himself through ritual. He cleanses himself with water and chants a Cherokee battle cry. Guards on Death Row use a system of “cut-outs” from warden to executioner that divides the duty of state murder into manageable units to insure that no one man is responsible for the death of another. Protected by law and bureaucracy, they are all able to function in the sanctioned business of death. The system is so successful that Lesy finds the officer in charge of Death Row is “capable of being in two mental places at the same time.” He is there and not there, responsible and aloof.
What have we learned through Lesy’s travels? The answer lies not in the moral or sententious conclusions he thankfully avoids, but in the telling. Lesy’s “forbidden zone” is Conrad’s “heart of darkness” where Marlow explains that the meaning of such deep stories is not like the simple tales of sailors, “not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” Lesy is an adventurer like Marlow who has written a difficult and compelling book.
Layered stories like these are narratively complex. The same subject is seen from many different angles. Lesy, for the personal reasons that created his initial interest in this subject, links journalistic reporting to the autobiographical urgency of facing his father’s death. These two lines of narration often collide at the expense of the book, and, ironically for the expectations of the author, the work is most intimate when it is the least overtly personal. “The Forbidden Zone” is fundamentally sound and often inspiring. Lesy refuses to accept cant and the kitsch popular view of death and dying that imagines that facing one’s last days is a matter of attitude. We finally learn along with him what he is told by an AIDS physician, “You die the way you live. There are very few last-minute transformations.”