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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Afterlife: Mythological Battle of Good vs. Evil

No two ways about it: Marcus Sakey's new novel, Afterlife, is ambitious. Even though it clocks in at only about 300 pages, it has elements of several recognizable creative triumphs: The movie Inception, Stephen King's Dark Tower series, Gaiman's American Gods, and Nelson DeMille's best police thrillers, for starters. Hell, there's even a love story here. Perhaps this is why Sakey admits in the acknowledgments, "This one was a beast." Sakey spent "nearly a decade" with this novel, writing and rewriting, fleshing out ideas, and solving problems.

The result is a polished, compelling, inventive "alt-fic" (a genre Sakey just invented) novel that's by turns smart as hell and as shocking as they come. This was a novel I had to put down several times in astonishment, take a deep breath, and then keep reading. It's really mesmerizing in spots — Sakey gets pacing just right here, which is no small feat given the relative complexity (especially in the last third of the novel), the characters, and just how all this fits together.

Here is what happens: Will Brody is an FBI agent chasing a serial killer in Chicago who gets his jollies sniping innocent victims at gas stations and grocery stories. Acting on a tip, Brody is searching for clues in an abandoned church, when it blows up. He's dead. This happens on page 38 — a risky decision for any novelist to kill a main character so early. (Not a spoiler: This is on the back blurb.)

His boss and erstwhile secret lover, the ultra-competent director of the FBI's Chicago office, Claire McCoy, vows to find the killer(s). And while doing so, she also must mourn in secret because no one knows she and Brody were together.

Meanwhile, Brody wakes up. Sort of. He's in a place he comes to understand is an "echo" of real-life — an afterlife that resembles real life in many ways, but has many glaring differences as well.

In this afterlife, there's a choice, just as there is when you're alive: You can choose to be good, and help other people. Or you can choose to be evil, and live only for selfishness. In the opening pages of the novel, we actually get a glimpse of what this evil looks like. And it's terrifying. So Brody soon finds himself stuck in this mythological battle of good vs evil in the afterlife. That's all you need to know plot-wise to get you started. What happens with Claire and Brody's cross-dimension love story? How does Brody fight this mythological and powerful evil? Read it, man. It's worth the trip!

One of the things I loved about this novel is Sakey's vision of how the afterlife works. I got to sit down and talk with him about it a few weeks ago as I worked on a piece for the Chicago Review of Books, and Sakey told me the sort of spark for the novel was how we're so sure that there is going to be an answer for what happens when we die. So what happens if there's either not an answer, or the answer is completely unexpected? Sakey's afterlife has some very specific rules in how it behaves and how its occupants can behave in it — and spelling these out had the potential to bog down what is otherwise an extremely fast-moving story. But Sakey describes these "rules" quickly and clearly and moves on. It's a definite strength of the novel.

Another strength here is dialogue — Sakey is funny. Sakey is cool. And after talking with him for an hour, it's apparent how much of his personality comes out on these pages in dialogue. He mentioned that to him the patron saint of dialogue is Aaron Sorkin, and you can see that influence here. Dialogue is quick, snappy, sharp, and often really funny.

This is one of my favorite novels of the year — I really enjoyed it, both for sheer entertainment, but also for its inventiveness. I had a blast with book. Highly recommended!

(Side note: Ron Howard's company Imagine Entertainment has already optioned the novel, and Sakey is writing the screenplay! He said he loved this book enough, and that his vision of it was so clear, that he thought it was worth taking on the screenplay himself. I'm really hoping this one makes it to production!) 



Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Hearts of Men: What Does It Mean To Be a Good Person?

Nickolas Butler writes with more empathy and feeling for his characters — even those who act like jerks — than just about any novelist I've ever read. That was definitely true in Shotgun Lovesongs — one of my favorite books of the last five years. It's true in his terrific story collection, Beneath the Bonfire. And it's perhaps most true in his new novel, The Hearts of Men.

This is readily apparent in one of the opening scenes of this fantastic, heart-wrenching novel: Thirteen-year-old Nelson's parents throw him a birthday party, and he waits patiently for the boys in his Boy Scouts troop to arrive. But they never do. It's a long, excruciating day for poor Nelson. But finally, an older boy named Jonathan arrives, shoots some arrows with Nelson, and then having completed his obligation, takes his leave. It's a near-perfect way to open a novel: We immediately feel just gutted for poor, nerdy, friendless Nelson. 

And then it gets worse: We follow Nelson to his beloved Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin. There, he's constantly picked on — the other boys taking perverse pleasure in pulling particularly mean pranks on him. And even more sadly, he doesn't get much support from his father, a typical emotionless 1960s fellow, who doesn't exactly wear his emotions on his sleeve. His father seems more embarrassed by his son than protective of him. Jonathan, the older popular boy, who seems to be a good kid, is Nelson's only agent. 

So we follow Nelson through various misadventures at scouting camp, and then we jump forward 30 years. In the second part, it's the mid-1990s, and we follow middle-aged Jonathan, who now has a teenage son of his own named Trevor. Jonathan is preparing to take Trevor to the Boy Scout camp, per tradition, even though Scouting isn't really en vogue anymore. Nelson is now the camp's director after a stint in Vietnam, and he and Jonathan have remained acquaintances through the years. Jonathan has kind of morphed from a good kid to a bad father and husband. But he's an affable fellow, so it's hard to dislike him. Throughout this part, we learn a new, more modern definition of manhood in a sort of "what not to do" way. Jonathan pesters his son, has an affair, and just generally does everything a good father and husband probably shouldn't.

Finally, the third part, takes place in 2019. This may be the best, and most harrowing, part. It's about yet another trip to the camp — this time with Trevor's son, Thomas. Only this time, Trevor's wife Rachel goes on the trip, which creates some consternation among the other fathers there. Nelson is still there, and he and Rachel become good friends. In this part, we find out what it means to be a truly despicable man. It's a hard section to read at times, but again, probably the best.

So on the whole, this three-part novel is about not just want it means to be a good man, but simply what it means to be a good person. Are you a good parent? A good friend? Are you a faithful spouse? Can you be a good person if you're not any one of those things? Butler seems to be wrestling with these questions as much as he asks his reader to. And that's why it's so apparent how much he cares about his characters — which of course, we do too, then.

I loved this book. Butler (who, by the way, is reading and signing at RoscoeBooks on August 16!) is a must-read writer for me now. And this novel is a sure sign that he's only getting better. Highly, highly recommended!