I initially came across this book while trying to hunt down a copy of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes And Other Lessons From The Crematory which it turns out is extremely difficult to find in libraries (at least where I live. Brisbane can offer a suprising amount of experiences and high profile events and also a dissapointingly few. You kind of need to live in Brisvegas to get my drift…). Although I settled by choosing this book, I definitely didn’t make the wrong choice to pick it up. It was exactly what I was looking for. Honest, funny, interesting, poignent and fast-paced.
Oh, yes—that thing about house cats is true. Your faithful golden retriever might sit next to your dead body for days, starving, but the tabby won’t. Your pet cat will eat you right away, with no qualms at all. Like any opportunistic scavenger, it will start with your eyeballs and lips.
Working Stiff tells the real-life story of Judy Melinek, a medical examiner who spent most of her career working New York. Through her eyes, the reader gets their first introduction into autopsies. The book isn’t, in my opinion, gory or macabre. It simple is what it is. People die and somebody needs to look into the why, the how and the when. The novel covers the every day cases that Judy receives such as drug-related deaths and suicides, to the unusual, such as the case of ‘The Cable Guy’ and a case of anthrax posoining. There are personal anecdotes and snippets of Judy’s life included so that the novel isn’t just about death but instead about how death affects life.
Something that I really appreciated about this book was the personal commentary from Judy. The book wasn’t dry and overtly clinical because all of the cases related to real life. The contrast between dissecting dead bodies all day and going home to play with her child was interesting to read about. To me, it was also interesting to see a woman pursue her career ambitions and delegate the child rearing to her husband. The family, which seemed healthy and energetic, somehow seemed to maintain a perfect balancing act of lifestyle and work. Judy herself is open about why she chose the career that she did. Of all the medical fields, working in a morgue probably offers the most security and the kindest hours. After all, the dead aren’t going anywhere.
“I enjoyed the intellectual rigor and scientific challenge of death investigation. Everyone there, from new students to the most senior doctors, seemed happy, eager to learn, and professionally challenged. None of the medical examiners had cots in their offices. “There are no emergency autopsies,” another resident pointed out to me. “Your patients never complain. They don’t page you during dinner. And they’ll still be dead tomorrow.”
It was Judy’s recounting of September 11 that truly horrified me. I had never considered the impact that such a devestating situation would have on the city’s morgue. With three thousand individuals deceased, the sheer logistics involved with identifying remains and storing them was fascinating to learn about. Even just the information about refrigeration of the bodies and parts was mind-opening in a way that I hadn’t considered before. I appreciated the way that Judy didn’t gloss over the details. She didn’t shield the readers from what her reality was and how many weeks, months and years it took for not just the recovery efforts to finish but also for her to digest what she had seen with her own eyes. I hadn’t quite understood the gravity of the situation and the horror of what happened to those poor people in those towers. Only through reading this book did I fully comprehend the scale and effect that these deaths had.
I feel that I can take a lesson from the book. Despite the morbid realities of what Judy faces, she sees life in colour and vibrancy. So often I let myself get bogged down by the little things and it changes the hue of my day. It was inspiring to read about how she deals with tragedy and challenges and how she overcomes these unusual situations with such a confident and positive outlook. No doubt, her relationship with her husband T.J. has something to do with it. T.J. remained in the book as a peaceful, gentle source of solace for Judy and there was no question that he was doing an amazing job of raising their children. But Judy herself has something special in her outlook on life that is strangely but perfectly suited towards a life filled with such gruesome and horrific realities. Judy, you have a fan in me!
Hopefully this isn’t the end of Judy’s writing career. The novel ends with a transfer out-of-state and another small member of her family joining the scene. But I’m sure there are many more cases to go in her career and hopefully, many more books to follow.