Sunday, December 27, 2015

Book Review: The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch (Volume One) by Daniel Kraus

My rating: 2.5/5

 From Amazon: "May 7, 1896.

"Dusk. A swaggering seventeen-year-old gangster named Zebulon Finch is gunned down by the shores of Lake Michigan. But after mere minutes in the void, he is mysteriously resurrected. ...

"Zebulon’s new existence begins as a sideshow attraction in a traveling medicine show. From there he will be poked and prodded by a scientist obsessed with mastering the secrets of death. He will fight in the trenches of World War I. He will run from his nightmares—and from poverty—in Depression-era New York City. And he will become the companion of the most beautiful woman in Hollywood.

"Love, hate, hope, and horror—Zebulon finds them. But will he ever find redemption?"

First of all, to Mr. Kraus if he should ever read this review: I love your work. Super love it. Scowler is one of my favorite books. I just didn't like this one.

Second, this was an advance readers copy obtained at a convention by a friend.

Third, I'll avoid them as much as I can, but I may describe some minor spoilers here.

I began reading this book back in July.  I have not read any books in between, and I'm both mortified and angry (at myself and it) for not having either finished or given up on this 600+-page tome earlier.  But by gød ( a convention in the book; please, no angry letters), I finished it on Christmas. And I'll keep it, because Daniel Kraus is one of my favorite authors and my friend got it signed for me and I think it's hilarious that the one autographed book I have from him is a book I pretty much hated. Irony is good; irony is for keeps.

Zebulon is not likable, and he's not supposed to be.  Unlikable characters are fine, and they're interesting. And Zebulon is interesting; he has a great background and lives through some crazy, interesting, historical things. But Zebulon is writing this memoir from present-ish day, and for the most part he seems unremorseful for the things he's done, short of somewhat feeling sorry for himself. Treading through over six hundred pages of this, and especially in light of the fact that Zebulon really doesn't grow or change as a character (he tries a couple of times but fails, shrugs his shoulders, and moves on) is a slog.

The book also jumps forward in time far too quickly and confusingly. I often thought he'd lived through a time span of maybe a few months, when it had in fact magically been seven years or more. Surprise; the other characters are now much older than our protagonist/antagonist, and I didn't have this image in my mind. I wanted to feel the movement of time, whether it was quickly or slowly for Zebulon, and it's fine if this varies for him. Sometimes it's okay for him to think, oh! of course she's no longer a child, I've been here six years. But when Zebulon knows the passage of time but we're caught off guard by it; or when he and we are surprised in different ways... we're jolted out of the reality of the story.  It also took me half of the book to realize la silenziosità was not figurative but literal. That was jarring, but I'll concede it was possibly due to my own lack of attention to detail.

The language, however, is beautiful, and in my opinion is the one saving grace for the book. Zebulon is eloquent and his language reflects what you would expect from an educated, well-read, 19th-century teenager, and he maintains this, no matter what he's describing. It serves as a great contrast to the forward movement of time, and I imagine it will be even greater in Volume Two, which presumably will start where this book ends in 1941. I'm also over-the-top impressed by an author who can sustain that type of language for so long, not to mention make it believable.

Several things, though, were not believable, and they may be what ruined the book for me. (Here I'll be brief to avoid as many spoilers as possible.) A few examples:
  • Zebulon lives through a few too many exciting events. And even with all of these happenings, his brain may be eternally "stuck" at seventeen, but it is unreasonable how little he seems to learn from them or to grow any real compassion. 
  • There were a few instances of things just simply not lining up. (E.g., he is stabbed in the shoulder during a fight while wearing a jacket, and moments later he describes how the jacket is unscathed. Was the assailant so kind as to pull aside his jacket first, without ripping it and without Zebulon even noticing?)  
  • It seems obvious from whence his immortality might have sprung, but he never thinks of it, and he's an intelligent enough kid.  
  • At several points in the book he tries very hard to keep a particular object inside his dead innards; but at another point he empties his stomach's contents, and not once is the object mentioned (either as remaining inside or exiting). 
  • And I'll just cryptically say that rigor mortis doesn't work that way.

I don't know what the intended audience is, but there is some language, sex, violence, and drugs. None is too much for a high schooler probably, but some of it is a little disturbing.  I wouldn't particularly recommend this book, but I'd absolutely recommend Scowler and Rotters by the same author to almost anyone!

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