A man torn forcefully from his son lives many lifetimes trying to return.
This debut novel by Riker is an odd philosophical meditation on life itself and can be dryly funny and emotionally frustrating in turns. Our narrator is Samuel Johnson, a young father living in picturesque Unityville, Pennsylvania, circa 1960—and no evident relation to the eminent 18th-century English writer. After his wife dies in childbirth, Samuel’s only salve is his young son, Samuel Jr. But one night a maniac with a gun grabs the child, there is a struggle, and...Samuel Johnson is shot in the head and dies. Unpredictably, he is immediately thrust into the body of the man who killed him. That man dies soon after in a car accident, flinging Samuel once more into the body of the nearest person. “I tried every possible escape...but what was there to try?” he says. “No actions to take, no choices to make. Just awareness of myself as a being in nonspace, witness to a life that was not mine and had nothing to do with me.” What follows is something of a comedy of errors as Samuel lives out the lives of various hosts, mostly of poor character, including a long stretch with a heroin-addicted sex worker. There are some hints at redemption—Samuel gets a clue about what happened to him and meets another trapped soul who teaches him to gain some control over his host body. But there’s something unsatisfying about the narrative, be it Samuel’s judgmental, catty voice or his hosts’ pitiable, very human arcs. Riker makes some interesting observations near the end, using Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal return as a touchstone, but the many lives of Samuel Johnson just don’t add up to a satisfying denouement.
A quirky novel that uses the transmigration of the soul to meditate on the human condition.