Medical Thriller Explores Near-Death Experience, Boundary between Science and Religion

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Tunnel Vision by Gary Braver. Forge. Tom Doherty Associates. 2011. 384 pp. $25.99. ISBN 978-0-7683-0976-1.

By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Bodies galore litter Gary Braver’s (Goshgarian) new novel — dead ones, live ones and some in between. And it’s the in-between sort that constitute the driving theme of this medical thriller.

In this book, Goshgarian, who has written a string of novels with scientific or medical themes, is exploring NDE, or, the near-death experience, and coincidentally the disputed territory between science and religion.

The novel, set in Boston, opens with a shocker prologue. A man in his 50s is brought to Jordan Hospital, ostensibly in cardiac arrest. EMTs and medical staff at the hospital fail to revive him. He is declared dead. And yet, a short time later, he is seen leaving the hospital, moving under his own steam, although his vital signs are flat-lined.

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Quickly, the central story gets underway. The protagonist, 24-year-old Zack Kashian, a student at Northeastern University, is in a financial pickle.

A gambler, he has lost so much money at cards, he can’t pay his debts. On his way home from a meeting with friends, he slams his bicycle into a pothole and blacks out.

His mother, Maggie, a widow, has already experienced double tragedies. Her older son, Jack, was beaten to death in a bar brawl several years earlier, and her husband, Nick, after divorcing her and joining a Benedictine order, has also died of cardiac arrest. Whereas Nick embraced religion, Maggie and Zack are both committed humanists and atheists. In any case, she rushes to his side.

Although Zack is in a coma, he begins to babble in Aramaic, a language his religious Christian friend, Damian, identifies. As news of his strange mutterings spreads, he becomes the focus of cultists who believe he is in touch Jesus and the afterlife.

An important subplot of the story involves Roman Pace, a serial killer, a chilling character who has been bumping off people for a living.

Pace, who has recently had a heart attack, is beginning to worry about what may happen to him once he has dies as he has committed too many heinous deeds. Raised a Catholic, he decides to go to confession and asks a priest whether he can be saved. To his vast surprise, he is offered a path to redemption by a priest who hires him to kill “one of Satan’s doormen. Someone who’s blasphemed against the Lord God Almighty.” It turns out that Pace’s targets are a series of scientists and medical researchers, who are involved in exploring the near-death experience.

Simultaneously, Zack is being touted in the local press as “resurrected from the dead.” As a result, Dr. Elisabeth Luria, a professor at Harvard Medical School, whose husband and son were killed in a car accident, has begun to do research and experiments on the near-death experience, in the hope that she may be able to get back in touch with the deceased members of her family. Zack still needs money so when he is given a flyer advertising sleep studies for money, he signs on, and finds himself in the hands of Dr. Luria.

Once Zack agrees to undergo the tests that Luria devises, he finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the exploration for life on the other side. In the course of the experiments, he forms a romantic relationship with Sarah, one of the researchers.

Another sub-theme of the book is Zack’s search for the father who deserted them and who, supposedly, died in a monastery. While the novel explores a number of technical aspects of near-death experience, the book does not come to a clear conclusion as to whether there is truly life after death. But Braver brings an energetic brio to the twists and turns of the plot. Having been trained as a physicist, the author is able to infuse the novel with a realism and factuality that commands the reader’s attention and keeps him reading.

There is a given audience for this book amongst those interested in near-death experiences and the subject is very much alive in the current culture. There is even a Near Death Experience Research Foundation. Braver’s book should appeal to this group and those beyond (not quite literally) who enjoy a quickmoving thriller.

Braver (Goshgarian) will be available at two presentations and book signings in the near future: June 23, 6 p.m., at Stellina’s Restaurant, 47 Main St., Watertown, Mass.; and June 30, 7 p.m. at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St., Brookline, Mass.