Resuscitation of a Hanged Man Summary
by Denis Johnson

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Resuscitation of a Hanged Man Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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Resuscitation of a Hanged Man is a story about the search for faith and redemption in a chaotic and uncertain world. The book is divided into four sections, and Leonard English’s quest for redemption follows some of the conventions of a detective story. The first section covers Leonard’s arrival in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, at the end of 1980; the second covers most of the next year, during which time Ray Sands dies from a heart attack and Leonard becomes increasingly obsessed with the case of a missing artist named Gerald Twinbrook. In the third section of the book, “May-June,” Leonard finds Twinbrook but fails to find the absolution he is seeking. Twinbrook died when he hanged himself, but without faith he cannot be reborn. In “Last Days,” the final section of the book, Leonard finds salvation in jail, having tried to redeem himself in a failed attempt to assassinate the local bishop. In his punishment—imprisonment—he finds the order and certainty he has been seeking.

Leonard arrives in Provincetown, a popular summer resort, during the off season. His arrival is hardly propitious: He wrecks his car and has to be driven into town in a taxi. He has come to work at two part-time jobs, one as a radio announcer and the other as a private investigator. His boss, Ray Sands, a former police detective, runs both the radio station and a private-detective agency in town. Leonard is not only here for the jobs; he is running from his failed suicide attempt and a crisis in faith.

His first day in Provincetown reveals a town full of transvestites and homosexuals. Already, Leonard’s shaky sense of self is challenged. He makes an unsuccessful confession at the local church, where he also meets Leanna Sousa, with whom he falls in love instantly. Leanna, however, is a lesbian and appears to be uninterested in Leonard.

Leonard’s first assignment is to follow Marla Baker, who turns out to be Leanna’s lover. Overcome with guilt and disgust at his own corruption, Leonard puts an end to the investigation by writing an anonymous note to Marla, letting her know that she is being followed. Shortly after that, Marla leaves town, and Leonard becomes involved with Leanna.

Through a reporter at the radio station, whom Ray Sands fires, Leonard hears about a paramilitary group called the Truth Infantry. After Sands dies, Leonard learns that he was the head of the Truth Infantry. Shortly after Sands’s death, Leonard is inexplicably kidnapped and brutally beaten. Resuming his search for Gerald Twinbrook, he finds Twinbrook’s notes on the 1870 resuscitation of a hanged man by two doctors. The man was a criminal, but reading the accounts of his resuscitation, Leonard wonders if he was really the victim.

Looking for meaning in unrelated events, he starts to see connections between the Truth Infantry, his kidnapping, Ray Sands, and Gerald Twinbrook. Leonard begins to believe that God is trying to get a message to him and that if Leonard can act on the “inner rebop,” if he “can follow every impulse as if it started from God,” perhaps he will be healed. Within this framework, he understands that nothing is a coincidence: Everything that happens is part of God’s plan for him.

By the “May-June” section of the book, the beginning of the tourist season, Leonard is becoming more and more paranoid. He can no longer deal with Leanna, who has taken up with Marla again yet wants to continue seeing him. Leonard traces Twinbrook to Franconia, New Hampshire, the headquarters of the Truth Infantry. Trekking up to their campsite, Leonard finds Twinbrook hanging from a tree. He has succeeded where Leonard failed. From this moment on, Leonard crosses the thin line between spiritual fervor and insanity.

Leonard returns to Provincetown, dresses in Leanna’s clothes, and goes to church to seek absolution one more time. Calling himself “May-June,” he tells the priest that he is in disguise. By now, Leonard’s assumptions—about his sexuality and his religion, about death and life—have been stripped from him. In one of the novel’s more bizarre and hallucinatory scenes, replete with crucifixion imagery, Leonard makes his way to the water; in a final act of redemption, he shoots at the local bishop, but he misses.