Mix one part teen angst, one part black humor, and one part witty prose, and you’ll get The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand.
For reasons never explained, Adam Strand has been unable to kill himself, and not for lack of trying. No matter what method he utilizes, he always wakes up hours later, alive and well. His friends, family, and the whole town know of his condition, and mostly just seem annoyed. But this book isn’t really about suicide: it’s about family and friendship and finding the will to live while recognizing the inevitability of death.
But even if you’re not slightly morbid (like me), there’s plenty to enjoy about this novel. Galloway has constructed a world within this Midwest town that is more than just a place. The banks of the river—with the the grimy angel statuary and rotting cow carcass, next to the murky water winding between factories that make wheels and corn syrup and pollution—was atmospheric, yet realistic.
Adam’s narration rambled, moving forwards and backwards in time with frequent asides. Incidents and stories were strung together. This isn’t a book full of action. There’s not a lot that happens. Instead, it’s best appreciated as a character study. Adam is so well-developed, and has such a unique voice, I wanted to keep reading about him, even if he doesn’t even want to tell me his story. Every now and then, he reveal something so wise, you wonder why he can’t see what a fool he is.
It isn’t just Adam that won me over, however. Each character is believable and well-developed. Maddy, the ten year old genius, was my favorite. She was absolutely endearing. Each member of Adam’s group of outcast friends was distinct and memorable. The 911 dispatcher who develops a habit of calling Adam each night, just to talk, will capture reader’s hearts.
Not only did I love the dark humor inherent in this story’s premise and structure, I loved the writing. It’s witty and touching, sarcastic and sensitive all at once. Though the novel is marketed as young adult fiction, Galloway hasn’t dumbed down the language.
I’d recommend this for fans of absurb novels, like one of my favorites, Death with Interruptions by José Saramago (I’ve discussed my love for Saramago here). It kind of reminds me of Tom Robbins, in that ridiculous-in-the-real-world kind of way. Try this novel if you’re a fan of Holden Caulfield. (Personally, I’d like to see some 39 Deaths/Catcher in the Rye crossover fanfic where Adam and Holden get drunk by the river.) Those who wanted to love Perks of Being a Wallflower but found all of Charlie’s crying annoying (I didn’t, but I know some readers did) then this is the book for them, though it unfortunately lacks a soundtrack and references to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (I’d also read some fanfic in which Charlie takes Adam to Rocky Horror.)
I enjoyed 39 Deaths of Adam Strand so much, I can’t wait to check out Gregory Galloway’s debut novel for adults, As Simple as Snow.