Gregory Galloway’s The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand is not an easy book. I almost gave up on it a third of the way through, and as I’ve said, that’s a rarity for me. Despite the high-interest hook of the premise—16-year-old Adam Strand kills himself again and again, but keeps coming back to life—some readers will be put off by Adam himself. For almost a full 100 pages, Adam reads like a humorless nihilist, a person so disconnected with and disinterested in life that he makes Holden Caulfield look happy-go-lucky. While his voice might be realistic—and I don’t doubt at all that he’ll speak directly to some readers*—he’s not remotely enjoyable to be around. His ennui is so contagious that when he said, “I was bored with the Point and bored with the same routine, the same people and the same conversations,” I responded with a resounding, “DUDE. WORD.” (Yes, out loud.)
Then, he introduced me to the two people he actually connects with—the two people he genuinely, no-holds-barred cares about. And everything changed. Because, in that first brief scene, I got a glimpse of the boy behind (or underneath) the part of him that desires oblivion—and in seeing him care about someone else, I started to care about him. After that first appearance of love-interest Jodi and Maddy, her 10-year-old charge, Adam becomes not just more bearable to be around, but more easy to empathize with: I found myself actively rooting for him to find his way.
Also, it’s hard to dislike a character who hands in a blank piece of paper for his assignment on Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.
It’ll be a divisive book: Some readers will wax philosophical about the detailed settings and the Importance of the Subject Matter and the lyricism of the prose, while others will throw it across the room (as I almost did) while yelling, “I THINK THE BRIDGES AND THE ROTTING COW MEAN SOMETHING, BUT I JUST! DON’T! CARE!” I’m extremely curious to see who lines up on which side.
Beyond the simple binary discussions we’ll undoubtedly see—like or dislike, pro or con, depth or pretension, meaningful or meaningless—there is potential for much richer, longer, more interesting conversation. For instance, Adam mentions the river “rejecting” him (his deaths often take place near/in the river, and then his body washes ashore): Could that be viewed as a reverse baptism? Is he really saying that he feels rejected by God, that he’s unworthy of paradise?
Late in the book, Adam’s “condition,” as people call it, becomes a focal point for the larger public’s anger and fear, leading to a pointed tirade about our culture’s short attention span, the media’s role in encouraging it, and our collective disinterest in capital-T Truth. Despite that tirade, despite Galloway’s clear desire to understand suicide rather than hide from it, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the book targeted in exactly the same way as Adam: with fear, with anger, with blame. Unfair? Completely. Unlikely? Not at all.
*Including, I think, the teenaged me. Or, at least one of the many iterations of the teenaged me. There were many.