Early in Olmstead's distinctively introspective novel, Eddie Ryan's wife, Mary, sits in their New Hampshire home fretting about how many freebie corpses they're preparing. Eddie shrugs off the loss. "You can't be a good businessman." he explains, "and a good mortician." Ryan is a very good mortician, with a bizarre sense of humor.
"Just how debilitating was this illness?" he asks when one of the town's more formidable citizens. Isabel Huguenot, dies. Told that she "debilitated about 15 pounds." he confronts the prospect of laying out a 500-lb. woman. Nor is Eddie shaken when a stiff in his living room sits up—Colleen Gunnip, prematurely sent over by a nursing home ("I think there's been a little mix-up." she says). Most important: He doesn't blink when a wild-eyed logger named Cody arrives one Christmas Eve, bearing the chain-sawed body of his partner.
A most unlikely man who comes to dinner, Cody stays, becoming a catalyst for Ryan's crisis and redemption. Drinking alone and together, the two begin bonding, dancing tentatively around Mary and the Ryans' children. Cody's moods and sexual confusion add a mysterious counterpoint to the ordinary life that shields Eddie's brutal memories—of Vietnam and an alcoholic father. In between the psychic explosions, Olmstead—whose earlier books, River Dogs and Soft Water, earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship—Fallows routine family dramas, quarrels and triumphs to unfold.
As poetic as its title, A Trail of Heart's Blood becomes a leisurely sojourn among one town's eccentric denizens. Not for all tastes, it will delight those who, like Olmstead, view the world with a blithe sense of futility. Or, as Eddie Ryan puts it: "How the hell am I supposed to know the right words all the time? Sometimes I think I'm just wandering through like the next guy." (Random House, $19.95)