The Paths of the Dead Intertwine: On R. J. Fox’s ‘Awaiting Identification’

Fox’s novel is a fictionalized account of characters based on real-life unidentified bodies.

R. J. Fox
Fiction | 304 Pages | 6” x 9” | Reviewed: Paperback
978–0989908764 | First Edition | $16.99
Fish Out of Water Books | Ann Arbor | BUY HERE

Image: Fish Out of Water Books.

In 1999, R. J. Fox read an article in the Detroit Free Press titled “Mystery bodies awaiting identification.” The article shared physical descriptions of six individuals found dead in Detroit who remained unidentified in the Wayne County Morgue.

Nineteen years later, Fox’s fictionalized account of characters based on five of the unclaimed bodies became the novel, Awaiting Identification.

In the novel, five bodies are brought into the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office on October 31, 1999. Known only as Jane Doe or John Doe, these characters are given the monikers NYC Girl, Leaf Man, R.I.P., Zealot, and Cat Man, all of whom died on October 30 — known in Detroit as Devil’s Night — after unintentionally crossing paths and making a fleeting impact on each other while seeking redemption in their individual lives.

Fox gives each character a complex backstory that explains how he or she ended up at St. Andrew’s Hall, Detroit’s flagship nightclub known for its basement rap battles where Eminem’s career began.

After failing to make it as a dancer in the Big Apple, NYC Girl returns to Detroit grappling with an unplanned pregnancy and hoping to make amends with her mother. Leaf Man is an aspiring techno DJ whose gig at St. Andrew’s Hall is his motivator to end his career selling drugs and to focus on his music. R.I.P. is a desperate thug who needs money for his sick father’s expensive prescriptions. The Zealot is a pale-faced man who hands out religious pamphlets and proselytizes God’s wrath to anyone within earshot. Cat Man calls himself an urban nomad who wanders the city with a kitten in his pocket in hopes of making new friends, while suffering memory loss of his former life.

“Being homeless certainly didn’t make Cat Man’s life any easier. Not that he ever regarded himself as homeless. He regarded himself as an urban nomad and took great pride in the city he called home. When he picked up after others, he felt both a sense of duty and fulfillment and was hopeful that one day, others would follow suit.”

While the characters, on the surface, appear most concerned with themselves, they each have moments of kindness toward the others they encounter, revealing that their surface-level mistrust of others is deeply rooted in fear.

For instance, when NYC Girl contemplates suicide on the bridge leading to Belle Isle, Leaf Man stops her and shows her compassion. What she doesn’t know is he is on his way to picking up the last stash of drugs he will ever sell. Their moment together is tender, however, and it changes her outlook on her situation; we see a moment of optimism, even hope, from her for the first time.

“All it took was for her to stand on the precipice of death to realize that she wanted life. She was going to keep her unborn child and return to her mother, who she now understood in ways she never before had: once upon a time, her mother had given her a chance at life and did the best she could under unbelievably difficult circumstances. Both were born into the same hell. Now, it was her chance to try to make things better.”

The novel’s plot accelerates through the events of the night as we get closer to each character’s imminent death. Detroit in 1999 is the larger contextualized character of the book, and we see that it is the city that suffers the most. Arson, violence, drugs, poverty, desperation, and homelessness leave her downtrodden and gritty in the aftermath. While Detroit appears as a dark underworld on the surface, it is pulsing to the beat of techno music and stubborn in its strength.

MELISSA GRUNOW is the author of Realizing River City (Tumbleweed Books, 2016) and I Don’t Belong Here, forthcoming from New Meridian Arts Press in fall 2018. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Nervous Breakdown, New Plains Review, Blue Lyra Review, and elsewhere. Find her at her website.