This is somewhat irregular, but I’d like to start off this review with a painful confession: I somehow wasn’t familiar with Tom Piccirilli and mistook his new novel What Makes You Die for a debut.
Come back. Stop laughing.
In my defense, so far Piccirilli seems to have written mostly (though not exclusively) in the horror and thriller genres, which aren’t really my bailiwick. The ARC for What Makes You Die came in from Apex Book Company, a relatively small press. It’s a short little book, just 150 pages in my Epub copy. The blurb somehow yelled “autobiographical first novel” at me. Obviously, I’d somehow never heard of Tom Piccirilli, and of course I assumed that must mean he’s new.
So after about 30 pages, I’m sitting here thinking “whoa, this guy can write,” and I decide to fire up the ole Google. Turns out Tom Piccirilli has written over twenty novels and a gabillion short stories. He won a number of major awards, including the Bram Stoker Award on more than one occasion, and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award. I was so shocked at my own painful ignorance that I decided the only way to atone for it was to display it in grand fashion at the start of this review.
If everyone’s done laughing, we can now move on to the actual review.
This book grabbed my attention because of one deliciously weird sentence in its publicity blurb. See if you can spot it:
What Makes You Die is about Tommy Pic, a screenwriter who fell hard from Hollywood success and landed in a psychiatric ward, blacked out from booze and unmedicated manic depression. This is not the first time he’s come to in restraints, surrounded by friends and family who aren’t there.
This time, though, he also awakes to a message from his agent. The first act of his latest screenplay is their ticket back to the red carpets.
If only Tommy could remember writing it. Trying to recapture the hallucinations that crafted his masterpiece, he chases his kidnapped childhood love, a witch from the magic shop downstairs, and the Komodo dragon he tried to cut out of his gut one Christmas Eve. The path to professional redemption may be more dangerous than the fall.
After reading that Komodo dragon sentence a few times, I decided to give this book a shot. Even then, it languished in my to-be-read queue for a relatively long time, because it didn’t really seem to mesh with my usual reading preferences and, again, the whole thing sounded like a semi-autobiographical attempt at a first novel.
Well, I’m not sure if it’s autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. I sort of hope it’s not, because protagonist Tommy Pic is a mess: a neurotic, suicidal alcoholic whose creative peak is disappearing in the rearview mirror fast. He lives in his mom’s basement. He does actually believe the spirit of a Komodo dragon lives in his abdomen. As What Makes You Die starts off, he’s just waking up in a psych ward after a prolonged blackout, strapped to the bed and surrounded by his pitying family. This man is not doing well.
Because the novel is told from Tommy’s perspective, and he’s not exactly the most mentally stable guy, it’s never entirely sure whether the apparently supernatural aspects of the story are real or just the products of a deranged mind. Tommy sees his dead father standing by his hospital bed. He also believes the orderlies in the mental ward set up death matches between the patients and sell the harvested organs on the black market. And of course, there’s that Komodo dragon.
The novel’s title is also the title of a screenplay by Tommy. He supposedly wrote the first act during his latest blackout. When he gets back home, he finds an enthusiastic message from his agent, claiming this new work will revitalize Tommy’s career. The thing is, he doesn’t remember writing any of it. He can’t even seem to read the printout. (Hysterical blindness?) The notes his agent made in the margins don’t ring any bells. (Amnesia?) Whatever it is, his agent wants Tommy to write two more acts by Monday.
The end result is a hallucinatory weekend during which Tommy tries to get back to the same state of mind that somehow led him to write his best work in years. He revisits old haunts, pursues old ghosts, considers his past, meets new people. He’s frequently drunk. His sanity is questionable. I mentioned the Komodo dragon, right?
The oddest thing about this novel is that, despite the utter despair of Tommy’s life, it’s somehow frequently hilarious. Tommy’s a sharp observer who mercilessly dissects everyone’s perceived shortcomings, including his own. He’s both brutally offensive and touchingly insecure. He’s losing grasp on his life, but he has enough forward momentum to not only keep the show going but also to narrate it like a grand, insane adventure.
Tommy’s narrative voice is what carries this novel. His combination of hopelessness and hilarity is perfect. (That combination is also expressed as the closest thing to his creative philosophy during an unlikely cinema appreciation meeting, told in the form of –what else?– a screenplay that anchors the middle of the novel.) It’s a bizarre experience to find yourself laughing out loud while someone is describing the complete breakdown of his life and psyche, but somehow Tom Piccirilli manages to create that kind of dynamic.
Another surprising facet of this novel is the loving way Tommy describes his family members. There’s something incredibly touching about the portraits of his mother and sister, their home life, the genuine compassion they have for each other. The memories of spending time with his long-dead father are equally moving. These scenes are like islands of reliability during all the madness in Tommy’s life.
Is What Makes You Die perfect? No. Despite everything, the constant introspection sometimes feels self-indulgent. The hallucinatory aspects of the story occasionally stray into absurdity. The ending feels rushed. Very little is resolved. That’s probably the point, but it feels like a major letdown after the intensity of the first 90% or so of the story.
Still, the fact that I wanted more is probably a sign that something good was happening here. What Makes You Die is a short and entertaining read full of bizarre contradictions. I had trouble putting it down. Now I finally figured out who Tom Piccirilli is, I should really try to hunt down some more of his works.
This review was originally posted at Tor.com on March 19th, 2013.