What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli
Genre: Adult Fiction (sorry, I can’t come up with a specific genre for this one!)
Publisher: Apex Book Company
Release date: March 26 2013
Source: e-ARC from publisher
In a word: laugh-out loud funny, pitch perfect writing, a many-layered mystery, filled with quirky characters you’ll love.
I looked up into the sky and tried to call down the rain. It was a day when I should have been walking in the rain, with the wind rising around me, the dark funnel clouds opening above me, a mean storm waiting to break. So below, as above.
But there wasn’t any rain. The world denied me my tempest. The alcohol gave me a sour stomach. Gideon curled and uncurled upon a sharp flat rock inside me. The scent of citrus and garlic came on heavy. The smell of freshly made tomato sauce made my belly growl. Gideon hissed in response.
Tom Piccirilli’s hallucinogenic tale is a real gem: I can honestly say I did not know what to expect when I started reading What Makes You Die, but I knew after the first ten pages or so that I was reading a very special story. Piccirilli’s seasoned writing is so good and his pacing so perfect that I know I will be going back and reading his earlier books when I have some free time. This is a quick read, not only because of the page count, but because of several mysteries that are woven into the plot, mysteries that will keep the reader turning pages as fast as possible.
Tommy Pic is a Hollywood screenwriter in a slump: he hasn’t sold a screenplay in years and his life has become a succession of binge drinking and manic-depressive blackouts that send him to the psychiatric ward, or “the bin” as he calls it. When he wakes up from his latest episode, strapped to a bed and surrounded by his family, he wants nothing more than to get the hell out of there and try to get things back on track. But a call from his agent, Monty Stobbs, makes him wonder if he’s going crazy. Monty is over the moon about the first act of a screenplay that Tommy emailed him called What Makes You Die and thinks this might be the one to put them both back on the map. But what’s a depressed and confused writer to do when he can’t even remember writing the damn thing?
And so begins Tommy’s odd journey as he struggles to figure out not only the truth behind the mysterious screenplay, but a lost memory of a tragic event from his childhood. As he battles to stay sober he must deal with his dysfunctional family, a woman who claims to be a witch, and worst of all, the ghost of a Komodo dragon named Gideon who lives in his stomach.
Tommy tells his story in first person, and his distinctive voice is one of the best things about this book. His quirks are many; he hears the voice of Gideon in his head and even tried to cut him out once with a steak knife (which earned him a stint in the mental ward). He also believes he sees the ghosts of dead friends and family: his father, his brother Bobby, and the elusive Kathy, a childhood friend who disappeared without a trace when they were ten. He sometimes lapses into talking in screenplay format, with hysterically funny results. He’s a guy that you alternately love, hate and feel sorry for, often all at the same time.
When Tommy meets a girl named Eva that can possibly see into his soul (she tells him she can see Gideon), he lets himself believe that she may be able to solve his problems, and then he falls in love with her:
It was midnight. I was smitten. Maybe my heart was being cooked and eaten. Maybe that’s what love was.
All the characters in What Makes You Die are critical to the story and I can’t imagine this book without any of them. Even the smaller roles, like a high school girl named Celeste who invites Tommy to her “cinema appreciation group” to speak about his movies, or the beautiful Trudy who ties up Monty at an out-of-control Hollywood party, are important, as Tommy claws his way out of his miserable life. And the dead won’t leave him alone. Tommy drives his “dead brother Bobby’s car” (as he refers to it) and keeps seeing women on the street who look like Kathy, grown up and alive after all. Most tragic of all is Tommy’s mother, a woman who has sacrificed her entire life by caring for Tommy’s mentally disabled sister Debbie, cleaning up after his brother Bobby’s drunken mishaps, and stoically bailing Tommy himself out of trouble time and again.
But although the mystery of Tommy’s new screenplay was enough to keep this story afloat on its own, my favorite part of the book was the back-story about Kathy’s disappearance. Tommy has suppressed his memory of the event, and it isn’t until he has several conversations with Eva and his mother that he can finally remember what really happened to her. The reveal is shattering, and adds depth to an already layered story.
The suspense builds as Tommy tries to drink himself into a stupor, believing that “the other me” is the person who is writing the screenplay. Whether or not he will be able to tap into this other persona and finish writing it, well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out. The character of Tommy, who is sometimes crass, sometimes sad and confused, but a good person despite all the mistakes he’s made, is one I won’t soon forget. And neither will you.
Quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the finished version of the book.