Scott Spencer’s fictional subject is obsession. In his 1979 best-seller, Endless Love, he dealt with the obsessive nature of adolescent sexuality. In Waking the Dead, Spencer undertakes to deal with two adult obsessions which he sees as more complex but no less destructive. Spencer’s narrator-protagonist, Fielding Pierce, is the victim of two obsessions in conflict with each other, and in the end they destroy him.
Pierce, the son of a blue-collar family from New York, has been programmed by his parents for upward mobility, with political power as his goal. He is obsessed with the idea of attaining high political office and ultimately, perhaps, the presidency. He is encouraged in this by Isaac Green, a power behind the scenes in Chicago politics who takes Pierce under his wing when Green’s own son chooses to leave his father’s orbit and the career that had been planned for him. Pierce inherits that career. In one sense he has trained well for it, through Harvard University, a hitch in the coast guard, and the University of Chicago Law School.
Green is largely responsible for Pierce’s opportunity to take the first major step in realizing his dream. When a Chicago Democratic congressman is forced to resign because of a sexual scandal, Green has enough clout to convince the governor, Kinosis, that Pierce should be the party’s nominee for the seat in Congress, despite the fact that Pierce is only an assistant prosecutor with no real political base. It must be inferred that both Green and Kinosis believe that Pierce will be readily manageable when he gets to Congress and will serve their ends. Pierce himself, convinced that his destiny is calling, makes no protest when they provide him with a campaign team of hack Chicago politicians.
Pierce’s apparently easy progress to Congress is deflected, however, by his second obsession, which in the end proves the more powerful. Five years before his chance to run for Congress, Pierce’s longtime lover, a young woman named Sarah Williams, had been killed by a terrorist bomb. Sarah had lived with him in Chicago and had become part of a Catholic activist group engaged in providing sanctuary for refugees from Latin American political persecution. The bomb which killed her had been intended for two Chilean exiles; she had died only because she was driving them from Chicago to the Twin Cities. Soon after Pierce is chosen to run for office, he becomes convinced that Sarah is alive, and his efforts to find her begin to interfere with his campaign.
The signs that Sarah may be alive are vague. The first is no more than a feeling Pierce has while walking through a Chicago blizzard; somehow, he thinks, Sarah is present. When he reaches his home that night, his present lover, Isaac Green’s niece, tells him that a woman has called him on the phone and left no name; he is sure that it was Sarah. When others tell him that they have seen women on the street, in New York or Chicago, who reminded them of Sarah, he becomes more convinced than ever that she is alive. Finally, he leaves an important meeting in a Chicago restaurant to pursue a woman he thinks is Sarah; the woman flees and eventually loses Pierce in a church, but when he finds that the pastor of the church is one of Sarah’s former associates in the sanctuary movement, he is certain that he had indeed seen Sarah and that the priest, despite his denials, is hiding her.
In his obsession with finding Sarah, Pierce pays less and less attention to the campaign. Although the Republicans have nominated a candidate with no hope of winning, their nominee proves surprisingly popular and begins to seem a real threat to Pierce’s election. Yet despite the urgings of Green and Kinosis and his family, who send his sister Caroline to help him, Fielding cannot shake off his obsession, except for brief periods of time.
Spencer shows the progressive breakdown of a character who cannot help becoming increasingly degraded as his obsession takes hold. Juliet, his current lover, is not desperately in love with him, but she tries to help him, only to be treated by Pierce with unnecessary and unforgivable cruelty. His brother Danny, publisher of offbeat books and a marginal drug dealer, entrusts Pierce briefly with the care of his girlfriend, a Korean who is a former prostitute. In what Pierce recognizes as his most degraded moment, he tries to seduce his brother’s girl. It is more than coincidence that immediately after this scene he receives a phone call from Sarah—or so he believes. She provides a plausible reason for her survival (she had been replaced as driver of the doomed car at the last minute by someone else; her colleagues have kept her hidden), then says, “I’m so proud of you, Fielding. You’re so close to what you’ve been working for. You’ll be in a position to do so much good.”