Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Vol. 1: At the Edge of Empire

How on earth am I supposed to review this?  I had an eARC, but this book is like nine thousand pages (just kidding!  Goodreads gives the page count as 656) of what I can only categorize as an epic.    And this is just part one.  (Note to Daniel Kraus: I really, really, really need part two or I might keel over from Acute Feels Disorder, which is endemic to book bloggers and librarians).  And a word of warning: I've admitted previously that I find enthusiastic, swooning reviews (in which category this review fits) extremely difficult to write.  By nature, I am a pessimist, and a tra-la-la-la-la sort of perkiness doesn't particularly become me.  Yet, here I am, giving it a go.


First of all, I admit that in the middle I lost faith.  Forgive me, o author, for I have sinned.  I felt like things weren't really happening and I was cranky and I had a cold.  Being ill makes me petulant, at best.  And then we slammed into the trenches of WWI and I was totally there.

As you may have surmised from the title, The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch is no ordinary life story.  It's a life-as-a-dead-person story.  Son of a dynamite dynamo, Zebulon Finch is utterly stifled by his mother's hovering--and this before the invention of the helicopter.  His days are endless lessons.  His suits are always pressed and perfect.  He must be perfect.  But Zebulon is not a Little Lord Fauntleroy.  He's more like if Little Lord Fauntleroy joined AC/DC.

After escaping the family mansion in Chicago, Zebulon starts having fun.  Eventually falling in with the Gangs of Chicago and the Black Hand, Zebulon develops an aptitude for threats, blackmail, and murder.  He also falls for a flophouse prostitute named Wilma Sue, although he'd never admit that emotion to himself.  Then, after a particularly wild bender, Zebulon Finch's life as he knows it ends.  Wilma Sue disappears and he's shot in the back and tossed into Lake Michigan.

Seventeen minutes later, his corpse reanimates.  Zebulon realizes that not all is well in Denmark when he's at the bottom of the lake and not drowning.  How can someone who's dead drown?  After a lucky hook by a fisherman (right through his throat), Zebulon is hauled ashore and begins his new life while dead.  And what a life!

In his gruesome perambulations across Gilded Age America, Zebulon, or the Amazing Mr. Stick, as he is soon known, falls in with the worst humanity has to offer.  And also some of the best, for such is life.  His first major association after his resurrection to not-life is with a snake-oil peddler called the Barker and his traveling show, a hodgepodge of the outcasts of society.  A boy named Johnny Grandpa, who experiences rapid aging, takes a shine to the taciturn and most decidedly dead Zebulon, who the Barkner has rechristened the Amazing Mr. Stick.  After some time spent in a cage, the erstwhile Mr. Stick makes rapid strides in retraining his dead muscles to walk, and teaching himself to talk again.  Now he is a suitable plaything to be mutilated at Dr. Whistelr's Pageant of Health and Gallery of Suffering.  Let's just say it involves a lot of needles and ends with a duel.

After escaping this degradation, Finch trades it for one of another kind.  In his caravan journeying, Zebulon was approached by a man of science, one Dr. Cornelius Leather, who had a keen interest in what exactly made Zebulon tick without a functioning ticker.  Desperate to discover the cause of his miserable existence--and to possibly find some way out--Zebulon makes his way north to Baltimore and is welcomed by Dr. Leather with a smile that is more mad than kind.  They practice "meat etiquette"--that is, lopping and nipping off bits of Zebulon's body here and there and subjecting those bits of meat to various experiments.  Needless to say, this situation also deteriorates. This is where things get really gory, and if you haven't the stomach for it, I wouldn't recommend proceeding, for things just get more gruesome from there.  And why shouldn't they?  Life is excessively gruesome, after all.

Upon escaping the clutches of the increasingly mad Leather, Finch runs back down South where he sits a spell with some very intriguing spinster sisters before enlisting in the army to go fight in World War I.  His mission?  Not to save France or give glory to his country, but to find a way to die.  Permanently and thoroughly.

This is definitely the strongest portion of the book, and the most riveting.  Kraus completely immerses you in the horrible minutiae of the life of a private in the Marines at the Battle of the Bulge.  He also creates some really marvelous characters in Zebulon's squadmates, the greatest of whom, of course, is Church, the "Adonis."  All-American Iowan football quarterback, Church could lead the men into Hell and they would follow willingly.  Lucky thing, too, because war is worse than Hell.

From here, the eternally-seventeen-year-old Finch drifts back into civvy life in the States and is dropped right into the mess called Prohibition.  Once again, being dead has its advantages if you want to be a devil-may-care bootlegger.  In a happy coincidence, I hit this part of the story just as I was reading Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent, so I felt rather knowledgeable.  *blows on lapels*  I do wish that Kraus had spent more time on the serial killer aspect of this section (dear Daniel Kraus: if you wish to write a book featuring Jack the Ripper, I will not complain one bit), but time moves on, and with it, so does Zebulon Finch.

Our last port of call before part two of his journey lands Zebulon in late 1930s Hollywood, the Golden Age of big pictures and even bigger stars.  One of the greatest sex symbols in Hollywood takes him in as her celibate paramour.  Think Sunset Boulevard but with a dead man walking.  I really can't spoil it for you, but I will say that if you are a man reading this, be prepared to cringe in sympathy.

I'm still fascinated by Church's theory that Zebulon, having died at seventeen and been dead for seventeen minutes, has to atone by saving seventeen souls.  Juxtaposed with Zebulon's knack for doing the opposite, I wonder what will become of them.

Prepare for reading this book as you would for a long trek into the unknown.  You'll see wonderful things and horrible things and terrifying things, but it will make you question the difference between good and evil, life and death.  It's not an easy journey to make, but at the end, exhausted and sore, you'll want to do it all over again.

And, oh Gød, do I need the second one posthaste!

ARC received from Edelweiss.

2 comments:

  1. I love this review! We got ARCs if this in last week for Teens' Top Ten book club and I was like "whoa, that is looooong but it looks crazy good!"

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    1. It is! I would definitely recommend it if you/the teens liked The Monstrumologist. It's got a similar level of gore, just on a grander scope. And I love historical fiction--what can I say?

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