Friday, April 13, 2012

The American Book of the Dead, a Review

I feel like I owe Henry Baum, the author of The American Book of the Dead, a sincere apology. You see, he contacted me early last year about his book, thinking that it might be something that I would enjoy. I agreed to review the book, but told him that our first child was due soon and that it might be a while before I got to the book. Undeterred, he went on and mailed me a signed copy, scribbling a note on a card wishing me the best of luck with my soon-to-be daughter and that there was "no rush." Then Avonlea came and my reading life was hit.

Finally, at the end of March, I picked up Mr. Baum's book. (I confess, I also downloaded the ebook from Amazon for portability sake, which is currently priced at $0.99 and easily worth it. There's also a free download available through the book's website, linked here) I vaguely remembered that the book was some sort of apocalyptic tale about a struggling author and some strange happenings. As long as it took me to start the book, had I known that I would finish it so quickly I would have started much sooner. (It's an easy enough read to finish in a long afternoon sitting, if you're so inclined, as the book weighs in at just shy of 250 pages.)

It is difficult to describe The American Book of the Dead. The first word I think of is "Meta." Then maybe "weird." It's really impossible to classify it as a single genre, as it touches on almost everything. It's post-apocalyptic, pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, suspense, religious, satire, and a host of other things. It reminded me a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, though maybe not as deep, nor as funny. A blurb on the book says it's very much like Philip K. Dick, too, though I've not read any of his stuff, so I cannot attest to that.

Eugene Myers is a struggling writer in his 50s. He's making do by teaching a class at a local college. He's bored and depressed and his wife doesn't really love him and he doesn't necessarily love her back. The year is 2020 and the world has gone to hell. Random acts of violence are the norm, and there's little to be done about them. Sex is everywhere, with people copulating on prime time television and not a soul cares. All around him Eugene sees his world and its problems and he writes about his lifeless marriage and whatever he can think of. One afternoon he discovers an online sex video of his daughter. This straw breaks the camel's back, so to speak, and it begins the strange journey of Eugene Myers.

Paralleling Eugene's life is President Charles Winchell. Charles is a Christian Extremist who is bent on destroying the world so that he can rebuild it and enjoy the peace that is prophesied in the book of Revelation. Charles won his presidency on promises that he would save the world, and that's exactly what he intends to do. The man quotes scripture and takes the bible's words a fair bit out of context.

That would be The American Book of the Dead in a nutshell. Baum's writing is smooth and engaging. His story is thought-provoking and provocative. I felt the message was rather heavy handed at times and possibly fueled by conspiracy theories, but never downright offensive. The book progressively grew more surreal, to its advantage, and I never once got bored with the story. However, for all its praise, the tone of the novel was rather matter-of-fact, which took away a lot of the suspense. I'm not saying that there was no suspense, because there was, but I think there could have been more.

Henry Baum's book provided a surreal reading experience, as many things that jump into the Meta tend to do. However, by and large, I think Baum kept a deft hand on the plot, driving it forward with building momentum. Personally I would have enjoyed seeing more of the world and more of its characters, especially in the latter part of the novel. Instead, The American Book of the Dead is a tight, character-centered book that has some urgency in its message. Why? Because Baum's frightening future is something that could easily happen, barring the magical-like things that happen.

If you're in a reading slump and curious to try something bizarre, check out The American Book of the Dead. Even though I would have liked more development with some of the characters and settings, it still was a fun romp through genre-defying madness. And if you've read and enjoyed some Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five particularly comes to mind), you should definitely give this a try.

FTC Thingy: I received this book for free from Mr Henry Baum himself. Not in person, mind you, but through a machine of different people it did eventually arrive at my house, autographed and lustrous. Mr Baum did not hypnotize me and force me to write a flattering or positive review, and the opinions reflected here are solely my own. Furthermore, Mr Baum did not include any sort of cookies with my book, so I was under no Cookie Clause, either.


David Wagner said...

Hmm... could you elaborate a bit more on your definition of "meta"? I really have no idea what that means.

Sounds like a curious read. I may go grab it and file it away. Never read any Vonnegut before, maybe I should grab some of his as well...

Thanks for the review.

Christopher said...

I enjoyed the review. I read the book but hadn't written about it, and you wrote well, capturing its fabulous spirit.

Diz said...

You had me at free!

Enjoyed the review, looking forward to the read.

logankstewart said...

@Dave: By Meta, I mean self-referential inside and outside of the novel's plot and context. Not quite the same as breaking the 4th wall, but in a similar vein. Always interesting whenever that happens.

@Christopher: Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

@Diz: Ha, good. I'm not sure if this is something you'll like or not, as I'm not very keen on your reading preferences, but I hope you enjoy it. I'd be interested to read your review, too, as there's a strong anti-Christian theme in the book.

leslie said...

I like the idea that it could Dickian, but I am wary of the meta and a heavy-handedness... but I'm sure I have a mood for this one somewhere.

good review. the author was smart to send you a copy.

~L (omphaloskepsis)

logankstewart said...

@L: Yeah, maybe keep it in mind for next year's SF Challenge that Carl does? Certainly fits the bill there.