The Wednesday Review: Joe Nelms’ The Last Time I Died

The Wednesday Review is my pick for the book you absolutely, positively have to read this month. They run the gamut from literary fiction to romance, but they all have something in common: beautiful language and a story that sinks its claws in and won’t let go.

Christian’s head is not a nice place to be.

It is the opposite of nice. It’s dark and supremely fucked up. I almost feel like that’s a mild description for Christian Franco’s brain. Dark and supremely fucked up.

There’s something about The Last Time I Died that is excruciating to read, and yet, I couldn’t stop reading. Not until my stomach clenched one too many times and I had to put it down and pick up something else, something fluffy and mind-numbing. It’s that kind of book. It’s Hurricane Katrina footage: you keep watching, and watching, your disgust and disbelief growing with every second, but it’s not until day three of the coverage do you finally turn the TV off, and by that point your brain has been so saturated with the mess you’ll never forget it.

Christian’s been trying to deal with the fallout of his divorce, but he can’t bring himself to care about anything. He’s on the verge of losing his job, he’s already lost most, if not all, of his friends, and has generally made himself into an incredibly unlikeable person. That was one of my first thoughts about him – he’s hard to sympathize with. Nearly impossible, really. He goes out looking for trouble because all of his previous attempts at death have failed, and he’s made more than a few. But one attempt lands him in The White, a place of memory, and as they go sailing past, he finds one he’s repressed since he was eight. Desperate for more, he attempts riskier and riskier near-death experiences, all with the hope of ending up in The White, in the flood of memories.

I can’t remember the last time I had such a physical reaction to a book. It falls in that same category that Important Movies fall into, where you call it a film and it’s deep and powerful and gut wrenching. Died is certainly gut wrenching. Powerful, yes. Deep, in its way. It’s the perfect example of how utterly screwed the system can be. You have to wonder if the social workers hadn’t been so overworked, would they have paid more attention to how Christian was coping with the death of his mother? If there was more funding for therapy, would he have gotten the help he clearly needed? Because there is something fundamentally and irreparably  broken in him.

The Last Time I Died lands in that category because you should read it, like you should read Eli Weisel’s Night or Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, like you should watch Schindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda. The twisted way you come to care about Christian, when no one else does, makes you want to shake those few people around him who still see him and slap them into noticing him. They are calmly sitting by, watching the show he’s putting on. You should read it, and once you do, you won’t want to read it again because it’s that kind of book, the one you read and tell everyone else to but can’t stomach the thought of re-reading it. You want Christian to succeed, to uncover those missing pieces of himself, because there’s that faint hope that by doing so he’ll heal.

I’m not sure it’s possible for him to heal. I think he may remain a shell of a human, the poster boy for how we fail as humans when we wait for someone else to do the right thing.

Copy of The Last Time I Died provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Releases January 18, 2014.

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