March 25, 2013

Breathing New Life into Cheating Death: a review of Tom Piccirilli's "What Makes You Die"

What Makes You Die
by Tom Piccirilli
ApexBooks (2013)
162 pages
ISBN-13: 9781937009120

This book came out of nowhere, and the news of its release was nearly as welcome as the news Tom Piccirilli is on the mend. After being diagnosed with brain cancer last year, the guy went to hell and back getting a tumor the size of a tennis ball removed from his skull, then dealing with chemo and all the treatment that entails, and now the ungodly medical bills that are piling up because of the oh-so-wonderful healthcare system down there in the United States. Anyway, Tom is an author with a seemingly innate ability to go to very dark places within his writing, but even knowing that I wasn't quite prepared for What Makes You Die.

Tommy Pic, is a failed screenwriter, waking up in a mental facility somewhere after his umpteenth breakdown, strapped to a bed with his family at his side. It's old hat for everyone at this point. In his late-thirties now, he's seen the inside of a padded room more than once, to the point that there's no great drama from his mother or sister or anyone else beyond some prayers and hung heads.

With no money, no joy, no prospects, and no memory of how he wrote the first act of a new manuscript that showed up in the hands of his agent, Tommy is at his wit's end. The new book is titled "What Makes You Die" and his agent loves what he's written so far, but Tommy can't even be sure he even wrote it. And while visiting his agent across the river in New York City, he meets a young woman working in a shop for Wiccans and the like. He instantly takes a liking to her, but somehow she takes a liking to him, too. There's an empathic quality to her, and she even gives him the sense that she can see the same ghosts haunting him that he does--maybe not the komodo dragon living in his belly.

This book, much like Tom's novella Every Shallow Cut, is equal parts dazzling and depressing. Tommy Pic's sanity seems to be hanging on by a thread. He's already got a scar across his belly where he lost a couple feet of intestine from the Christmas Eve he took a steak knife to his belly in an attempt to cut out that ghost of a komodo dragon living in there. At the start of the book, it feels like we're just sitting around with his family, looking down on him in his madness, waiting for him to finish the job. A collision course with a tragic and all too foreseeable demise. There's a scene of Tommy answering questions from teenagers in a girl's parent's garage that slowly sours and makes you think the guy is going to go off the deep end at any second, and it won't be pretty.

There is a glimmer of hope for Tommy though, and that's what saves the book from being an utterly morbid exercise. It's a wrenching story and until you hit the final page, you're not quite sure if it's all going to go horribly, horribly wrong or if he might find at least one of the answers he's searching for. A really good book that will be a slog for folks looking for lighter fare and a gem for folks who have an idea how deep and dark the rabbit hole goes.

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