How strange that a book so unrelentingly about death should contain so much life. But that’s what we have in “Man Has Premonition of Own Death,” which stands athwart decay and demands to know why.
The book title copies the headline that appeared above a 1925 story in a Yonkers newspaper about a young man who uttered something of a prophecy shortly before he was fatally injured in a gruesome industrial accident. The young man was the author’s great-uncle, and it’s fair to say that Nicholas DiGiovanni, a novelist, essayist, journalist and poetry impresario, has been obsessed with the sad uncanny tale of Thomas Crooks ever since he found the old newspaper clipping in a family Bible some 35 years ago. Popping up here and there among the dozens of short essays & stories that make up this volume, elements of the Crooks story compose the leitmotif of a man who dies before his time yet somehow knows it’s going to happen. Which is not far from DiGiovanni’s own story.
For the author is himself a man who more or less has come back from near death to tell us about it. A strikingly personal account of fear, despair, hope, love, and above all, family, the book amounts to a premonition of his own death. DiGiovanni, in his 60s, is in recovery from brain and esophageal cancer. As we learn, he twice came very close to dying, once from the cancer before it was surgically removed, and once from massive hemorrhaging due to the effects of mixing chemotherapy with medicine he was taking for a heart condition (which itself was just barely prevented from killing him some dozen years earlier). DiGiovanni has had to confront his mortality repeatedly and with an intensity that many of us will feel only when we’re close to the end. It is the certainty of death and our foggy knowledge of what comes after it that permeate DiGiovanni’s writing.
But despite the grim topic and a necessarily autumnal cast, “Man Has Premonition of Own Death” is engaging as well as defiant, spirited and even light-hearted. This is due to the author’s voice, which is warm, wry, courageous and funny. DiGiovanni’s sense of humor, which only occasionally is of the gallows type, keeps these essays from being depressingly dark. Writing about those who have died among his family and friends, about his fondness for cemeteries and the celebrities and nobodies buried there, about the beliefs and indoctrination of his Catholic schooling, about how the dead are treated, considered, feared, missed — through all of it DiGiovanni proves to be an entertaining, thoughtful and perceptive writer. It is said that philosophy begins with the awareness of death, and that’s the direction in which DiGiovanni ultimately moves, although I wish his book offered even more reflection and metaphysical contemplation of our damned mortality.
Decrying how morticians mute death’s warning to the living through their cosmetic manipulations of the faces of the dead, DiGiovanni writes, “We all would benefit … if we got up the courage to look death straight in the eye.” Indeed, his book helps us do.
Nicholas DiGiovanni is a novelist, essayist, award-winning journalist, blogger and teacher of creative writing. His novella “Rip,” a modern-day parody of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” was published in 2011 by Black Angel Press. His fiction has appeared in Paterson Literary Review, Identity Theory, The Caribbean Writer, and elsewhere.
Connect with Nick online: https://nicholasdigiovanni.com
Nicholas DiGiovanni was born at the Fort Dix Army Hospital while his father served in the Air Force at Maguire AFB. His father was then assigned to duty at a base near Lincoln, Nebraska, and his parents moved with their new baby to Fremont, Nebraska, for a year. The author has spent the rest of his life being grateful that his parents did not stay in Nebraska – where he believes he would have wound up as assistant manager of an Agway franchise – and moved back to their home town of Yonkers, New York, a gritty industrial city on the lower Hudson River where DiGiovanni grew up, went to school, and absorbed the history of his family and his city – including the strange and sad tale of his great-uncle, 23-year-old carpet-mill worker Thomas Crooks, who (according to a 1920s newspaper article) had a “premonition of his own death,” falling to his death in a vat of acid just minutes after turning to his bride-to-be after a lunchtime picnic and declaring “I am going in, but I shall be carried out!”