Dead Writers In Rehab by Paul Bassett Davies
|But how do dead people kill themselves?|
Dead people like me. I'm dead.
One definite pleasure of the crowdfunding model, for us end users, is the delayed gratification, something with which I, and it would seem the main character in this novel, have no small difficulty. I had sort-of forgotten this book was in the offing, only for it to land suddenly in my wheelie bin one sunny morning (it wouldn't fit through the letterbox). I was delighted to be reminded.
It also came at a fortuitous time. I've been unwell and looking for distractions to keep me from internet mischief in my restlessness (being ill is mostly boring). After finishing the beautiful but rather depressing Stoner I was in need of something lighter, or rather, something more amusing. Wikipedia suggests Paul Bassett Davies has some impressive historical writing credits, including one of my favourites, Spitting Image. What's not to love?
So to the book, at last. We find James 'Jim' Foster, pen name Foster James, waking up dead in a rehabilitation centre in which he is surrounded by famous dead authors from modern history (at least I notice there were no demonstrably post-modern writers). We have diary entries from him, and from several of his fellow... recovering addicts (it begs the question how does one recover from death), as well as transcripts of group sessions (largely bellicose affairs) and memos written to each other by the resident practitioners whose own tangled relationship quickly becomes clear. We meet Dorothy Parker, with whom Jim has a loveless dalliance, Wilkie Collins, whose need for opiates leads him, literally, to take whatever shit he's given, Hunter S. Thompson, paranoid and belligerent, and the pugnacious Ernest Hemingway, whose hostility for the British newcomer tips over into rather comedic fisticuffs in the first group meeting.
I'd posit that, when reading a book where the major crisis appears to have occurred previously, i.e. before the book has even started, the reader must wonder where exactly the novel goes from there. Is he going to get better? Is he really dead? Can dead people even have sex? And who the hell is that in the trees? The development of the plot suggests some resolution is to be found in the relationship of the two psychiatrists/psychologists (I forget which is the correct label). It's also a risky endeavour to write as someone else, particularly when that someone else is a panoply of famous dead writers, all of whom have extensive back catalogues against which to cross-reference your attempts. Thankfully for Paul Bassett Davies he needn't worry about verisimilitude in this respect because....
...it's not him doing the endeavouring, but rather his fictional dead writer, in whose literary denial of his own problems the famous dead writers all appear. Yep, it's all a literary construct that Jim, back in rehab for real after a personal catastrophe that knocks him off the wagon, is writing either as a way to process his grief or as an attempt to escape the trauma.
I wonder if I'm projecting a context onto this that isn't real (appropriately), but it all feels a bit like a made-for-TV comedy show. This isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's funny, and I was relieved to find myself chuckling and chortling along. I imagine I'd enjoy watching the show. It also put me in mind of Michael Dibdin's The Dying of the Light, itself a mix of mystery, pathos and comedy and which won him a comparison to a famous and funny Tom (Stoppard in that case–some Amazon reviewers have set PBD up as the next Tom Sharp on the back of his first novel). His riffing on the styles of famous authors is fun if risky, and as an unreliable narrator, Jim is hard not to like. In all, it was a fine antidote to some pretty miserable houseboundness, despite the darkness underpinning it all.
And not to forget it's also still available in hardback from Unbound!