A number of characters die in my new novel, Angel Baby. Ooops! Was that a spoiler? Well, it’ll be the last one, I promise.
Anyway, from the beginning I knew that I wanted one particular death in the book to stand out, to resonate, to hurt. For inspiration, I returned to a few literary “last moments” that had moved me over the years.
The darkness and myself. Everything else was gone. And the little that was left of me was going, faster and faster.
I began to crawl. I crawled and rolled and inched my way along; and I missed it the first time – the place I was looking for.
I circled the room twice before I found it, and there was hardly any of me then but it was enough. I crawled up over the pile of bottles, and went crashing down the other side.
And she was there, of course.
Death was there.
Warlock by Oakley Hall
A “literary Western,” if you’re one of those who must label. I think it’s just a great damn book, period, and Tom Morgan’s last gasp is one of the reasons why.
He fell forward into the dust. It received him gently. One arm felt a little cramped, and he managed to move it out from under his body. In his eyes there was only dust, which was soft, and strangely wet beneath him. ‘Tom!’ He heard it dimly. ‘Tom!’ He felt a hand upon his back. It caught his shoulder and tried to turn him, Kate’s hand, and he heard Kate sobbing through the swell of a vast singing in his ears. He tried to speak to her, but he choked on blood. The dust pulled him away, and he sank through it gratefully; still he could laugh, but now he could weep as well.
The last words of Dutch Schultz
The Murder Inc. hit man who gunned down the infamous mobster used rusty bullets in the hope of giving him a fatal infection if he somehow survived the shooting. Following unsuccessful surgery to save his life, Schultz ranted and raved for 22 hours while a police stenographer took down every word. This fascinating and strangely moving final ramble was the basis for an unproduced screenplay by William Burroughs. The final portion of the transcript is below, and here’s a short animated film based on Dutch’s deathbed soliloquy:
Detective: Control yourself.
Schultz: But I am dying.
Detective: No, you are not.
Schultz: Come on, mama. All right, dear, you have to get it.
At this point, Schultz’s wife, Frances, was brought to his bedside. She spoke.
Mrs. Schultz: This is Frances.
Schultz: Then pull me out. I am half crazy. They won’t let me get up. They dyed my shoes. Open those shoes. Give me something. I am so sick. Give me some water, the only thing that I want. Open this up and break it so I can touch you. Danny, please get me in the car.
At this point Mrs. Schultz left the room.
Sergeant Conlon: Who shot you?
Schultz: I don’t know. I didn’t even get a look. I don’t know who can have done it. Anybody. Kindly take my shoes off. (He was told that they were off.) No. There is a handcuff on them. The Baron says these things. I know what I am doing here with my collection of papers. It isn’t worth a nickel to two guys like you or me but to a collector it is worth a fortune. It is priceless. I am going to turn it over to… Turn your back to me, please, Henry. I am so sick now. The police are getting many complaints. Look out. I want that G-note. Look out for Jimmy Valentine, for he is an old pal of mine. Come on, come on, Jim. Ok, ok, I am all through. Can’t do another thing. Look out, mama, look out for her. You can’t beat him. Police, mama, Helen, mother, please take me out. I will settle the indictment. Come on, open the soap duckets. The chimney sweeps. Talk to the sword. Shut up. You got a big mouth! Please help me up, Henry. Max, come over here. French-Canadian bean soup. I want to pay. Let them leave me alone.
Anything by Samuel Beckett
The sound of Tom Waits’ voice singing a ballad immediately brings tears to my eyes, and Beckett’s writing affects me in the same way. There is something so profoundly sad, hopeless, and hatefully true in the Irish writer’s meditations on loneliness, regret, and death. I believe in a universal melancholy, and Beckett has come closest to getting it down on paper. Here’s the last bit of a play called “That Time.”
A: back down to the wharf with the nightbag and the old green greatcoat your father left you trailing the ground and the white hair pouring out down from under the hat till that time came on down neither right nor left not a curse for the old scenes the old names not a thought in your head only get back on board and away to hell out of it and never come back or was that another time all that another time was there ever any other time but that time away to hell out of it all and never come back
C: not a sound only the old breath and the leaves turning and then suddenly this dust whole place suddenly full of dust when you opened your eyes from floor to ceiling nothing only dust and not a sound only what was it it said come and gone was that it something like that come and gone come and gone no one come and gone in no time gone in no time
Richard Lange is the author of the story collection Dead Boys, which received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the novel This Wicked World. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2004 and 2011. He lives in Los Angeles. Read more about his new novel, Angel Baby.