Zebulon Finch, known as “the Black Hand,” is a 17-year-old gangster operating on the streets of 19th-century Chicago, distributing death and visiting whorehouses. It’s a lifestyle that earns him a bullet in the back of the head and a trip to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Only Finch does not die—at least not in the normal sense. His ability to move, think, and speak stays intact, but his body is slowly decomposing. With no clue why this has happened, Finch sets off on a long journey in search of…what? Love? Atonement? Without anyone to explain what he’s supposed to be doing, Finch wanders through cities and decades, all the while transforming from a villain to someone worthy of sympathy.
Through the rotting eyes of his leading man, Kraus spans some of the most turbulent eras in American history, from the battlefields of World War I to moonshine distilleries in Prohibition-gripped Georgia to the golden age of Hollywood. Finch plays an active role in each conflict, using his inability to die (again) to his advantage as a soldier and as a bootlegger, although his decaying flesh is problematic in the bright lights of moving pictures. Time passes, but he grows no closer to understanding his predicament.
Despite its length, the novel never lags; the separate time periods constantly propel the narrative forward. Kraus’ globe-trotting dead kid is by turns cavalier, playful, and thoughtful, and his singular voice—a debonair turn-of-the-century murderer-turned-victim—is utterly riveting. A