Death of a Salesman. Death and the Maiden. Death Takes a Holiday. Mechanized Death. Faces of Death.
The little death. The long death. The death by a thousand cuts. Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me. Come sweet death, one last caress.
Nothing is as bound up in the human psyche as death, not even love. Sooner or later, everyone wakes up to the staggering realization that our bodies are only dirt on loan, wrapped into attractive packages by collagen and connective tissues cranked out by miniature manufacturing concerns inherited from our parents. We grow, we branch out, we merge to form subsidiaries, the moving parts wear out and eventually the bank forecloses—all this barring any sudden instances of fire, flood or catastrophe.
We tempt death by jumping out of airplanes (or even by jumping into airplanes), smoking cigarettes, hurtling down rapids and driving too fast, and we hedge our bets by eating more fruit and cutting down on saturated fats. Consciously and unconsciously, we choose one kind of death over the other—poison or a pistol to the temple over an ignominious death by hanging or a cruel march into captivity, emphysema and cirrhosis of the liver over the final twinkling out of death by natural causes at a ripe old age, in sleep, easing into whatever happens next—if anything happens next—as secretly as a river emptying into a night sea.
We talk about beating death in deals struck over games of chance—a theme memorably illustrated in The Seventh Seal—as well as cheating it. Some of us have willed our bodies, or parts of them, to be deep-frozen until such a time when death can better be bargained with—repealed, even—using medical technology that hasn’t been invented yet. Literature is full of deals for immortality that go south on a technicality—Tithonus, for instance, beloved of the dawn goddess Eos, who secured for him the gift of eternal life but failed to direct his attention to the fine print about eternal youth; “Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,” weeps Tennyson’s hero, “And after many a summer dies the swan. Me only cruel immortality consumes; I wither slowly in thine arms, here at the quiet limit of the world, a white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream the ever-silent space of the East, far-folded mists and gleaming halls of morn.”
Last Breath: Cautionary Tales from the Limits of Human Endurance isn’t so much about death as it is about dying. It comprises eleven chapters of individuals overstepping, as the subtitle would imply, the various environmental and physiological lines in the sand—caloric, barometric, atmospheric, thermal, altitudinal—between which the human body can live and where it starts to die. Packed with scientific detail, historical anecdote, medical suspense and baited with a monster narrative hook, it reads from cover to cover like an enchanting, freely roaming malarial dream.
Author Stark generally introduces each of these eleven ways to die with what seems on the face of it like almost horror-movie simplicity: by establishing fictional characters with varying degrees of sympathy and attachment to the reader, and then having them stumble into the inexorable pull of physics and physiology through their own hubris, determination or poor judgement. Or simply by accident. He accomplishes this by employing a nicely heterogeneous mix of tenses and persons; in the closing chapter on dehydration, the person is a squarely second-person you who’s running out of water and stumbling around the sun-blistered ergs of the Sahara.
In many cases—dehydration and hyperthermia, for example—there’s plenty of room for these factors to collude and conspire toward a death from multiple injuries, ruptures, leaks and failures. In their most discrete stretches, however, all these faces of death, as it were, assume a kind of purity of form that’s strangely peaceful even as the narrative plunges us into holes under river boulders, stuffs us into claustrophobic snow caves in the Himalayas, and drags us bouncing over exposed rock faces.
Within each chapter, Stark also strikes a sublime balance between narrative and character development and an incredible wealth of medical and scientific data, historical background and metaphysics. In Reader’s Digest terms, it’s “I Am Joe’s Body” times “Drama in Real Life,” with much more picturesque speech. There may be a few too many places where the narrative is prodded along just a little too obviously by the inclusion of a particularly intriguing bit of scientific fact. And there are some briefly irritating indulgences of the type where, say, the kayaker mulls his odds at a first attempt on a daunting stretch of rapids with an annoyingly expository invocation of water philosophy in the Tao Te Ching that also lends an epigraph to the chapter heading. For the most part though, Stark’s bang-on style keeps his narrative in fine and forgiving trim and the reader sails along with nary a backward glance.
In the two chapters devoted to animal-related deaths, Stark establishes an almost Dalton Trumbo sense of the conjoined fates that eventually bind a woman to the sting of a poisonous jellyfish and a dreadlocked beach bum to the bite of a mosquito teeming with malarial parasites. In Johnny Got His Gun, the waking nightmare of Trumbo’s shattered anti-hero congeals around the progress the fateful shell makes to the front lines; Stark’s box jellyfish lives a similarly brainless, motiveless life unto itself until it brushes against the human swimmer.
To get the most out of a book as viscerally engaging as Last Breath, it probably pays to be susceptible to a certain degree of altitude sickness or hypoxia of the mind while reading—to be a traveler from temperate regions in an equatorial ferment of yaws and flukes and schistosomes. It makes you graphically aware of everything that can go wrong; it makes you reconsider your own breathing. Having finished about half of the book, I came home to the smell of cooking chiles rellenos and, in that pleasantly acrid cloud of Anaheim fumes, I imagined knots of capsicum molecules like garden rakes scraping at the receptors that ring this message to the brain and back: “Brother, let’s eat.”
Author Peter Stark reads from his latest book, Last Breath: Cautionary Tales from the Limits of Human Endurance on Friday, Oct. 5 at 7 PM at Fact & Fiction.