In February’s best YA book, a frustrated teen kills himself over and over

In February’s best YA book, a frustrated teen kills himself over and over

With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them. 

Book: Gregory Galloway’s The 39 Deaths Of Adam Strand, published February 21, 2013

Plot: In a small Iowa town on the Mississippi River border, 10th-grader Adam Strand feels an internal pull he can’t explain, and jumps off a bridge to his death. He wakes up in the hospital, with his parents and older brother as baffled as he is by his revival. As time passes, his suicides—not attempts, but actual, grotesquely effective self-annihilations—become an intermittent habit between therapy sessions and stretches of time spent with his bored, drinking-and-drugging, go-nowhere friends. Drawn by the silent oblivion he experiences whenever he’s dead, he kills himself over and over, with poison, fire, a gun, a chainsaw, and more. Sometimes it takes him a few days to heal and revive, but he always does. Gradually, he becomes a shameful town secret, estranged from his family, lacking meaningful connections, and well aware that he’s just wasting time, waiting for the next urge to hit, or for the urges to stop coming. Much of the book simply explores his experience, his depression and impulse toward suicide, and the relationships he forms in spite of, or because of, his low-key status as the town freak.

Series status? 39 Deaths is a stand-alone novel, and the rare case of a book with fantastic elements that not only isn’t a series launch, but doesn’t even feel like it’s testing the waters for a series. Galloway’s one previous novel, 2006’s Alex-winner As Simple As Snow, was also a stand-alone YA book.

YA cliché? There’s often a necessary but familiar cliché at work in issue books about suicide, in which characters learn why life is worth living—or more often, experience the horrible sense of loss, betrayal, and abandonment when a friend commits suicide. And over the last few years in particular, the YA supernatural mystery has become a cliché, as a protagonist suddenly discovers special powers or abilities, and eventually learns he or she (usually she) is an angel, or a genie, or a sentient AI, or an android, or a biology experiment, or any number of other things. In spite of appearances, The 39 Deaths Of Adam Strand doesn’t give in to either cliché. Adam’s ability to survive fatal damage is never really explained; he isn’t a supernatural creature or a secret clone or whatever. Nor is there a huge turnaround at the end where he’s definitively “cured,” either of his mysterious immortality or his urges.

All of which contributes toward making 39 Deaths extraordinary. It isn’t the usual supernatural wish-fulfillment adventure, or an anti-suicide lecture in narrative form; it’s an honest, aching character study that captures small-town life and small-town despair, and takes both to an intriguing extreme. It thoughtfully explores the impulses that drive Adam, and what it feels like to be unwillingly locked into a body he’s tired of, and a life he sometimes hates but can’t escape. It’s daring, and deeply felt, and often grimly funny.

Bad sign: “‘You can’t punish him for the hours he was dead,’ she explained. My father disagreed.” Adam’s father is close to a caricature; as a rational man forced to deal with an entirely irrational situation—both Adam’s suicides and their results—he takes steps like moving Adam’s curfew earlier on a given night to compensate for lateness on previous nights. When Adam starts coming home days late due to suicides that leave him recovering somewhere out of sight, his father tries to move his nightly curfew up by 70 hours. It’s a nonsensical situation that illustrates the helplessness parents can feel when their children leave their control and start doing seemingly incomprehensible things, but the reactions of Adam’s dad still wind up seeming unusually awkward and forced, and given that Adam doesn’t understand him, the book doesn’t much get into his head, leaving him sometimes shallow and cartoonish. That said, even the father provides some story highlights, as when he buys Adam a pet snake, hoping it’ll give him a sense of responsibility and attachment to the world. When Adam loses interest, his father adopts the snake himself, drawn to its efficiency and simplicity—and possibly how easy it is to understand, compared to his confused, confusing son.

Good sign: “We were doing better than eighty—that’s the last I saw, and we kept going faster and then Todd shut off the lights. It was like being in space. We were hurtling through the dark like astronauts. There was nothing but the darkness and us accelerating. And then Bruce tossed one of the carts out of the back of the truck and the sparks flew up behind us in the most amazing shower, the big bang, the beginning of our own universe. We were gods.” 

The oddities of Adam’s father are an anomaly in a book that’s otherwise closely observed and often beautifully written. In one particularly stellar sequence, Adam and his friends steal a bunch of shopping carts, drive out to a deserted area, and throw the carts out of the back of a speeding truck to watch them tumble and disintegrate against the asphalt. It’s a typical piece of small-town teenage-boy destructive amusement, until Adam, struck by the image of himself similarly tumbling through the air and throwing off sparks, jumps out of the truck to his death. When he wakes up later, at home in bed, his friend Todd is there to ask what went wrong: “I thought you were having a good time.” “I was. That’s why I did it.” Their entire exchange is taut, spare, and admirably telegraphic. In just a handful of lines, Galloway gets across Todd’s resentment, confusion, and hurt: Adam’s friends had to scrape up his battered body and transport it home, which made a mess of the truck, and Adam clearly ruined what had been a rare high-energy, joyous evening. At the same time, Todd clearly doesn’t want to expose too much vulnerability or emotion, or further burden his suicidal friend. For his part, Adam doesn’t take the event particularly seriously or feel much regret, which leads to further imbalance. It’s just one illustration of how well Galloway captures small-town microcosms and teenage interactions. It also gets across how large, inchoate emotions can be difficult to communicate to others, but can still be the most important things in a person’s inner life.

Young-adult appropriate? The same kinds of people who thought Trainspotting glorified heroin use might think 39 Deaths puts a dangerous gloss on suicide, either glamorizing it or suggesting that it’s survivable, and that teenagers actually can live out the common fantasy of killing themselves and then hanging around to see everyone’s reactions. Suicide is a touchy subject, and Galloway’s unusual handling strays far outside the acceptable, tasteful established boundaries of how to address it. But Galloway’s frankness about disaffection seems much more likely to strike a chord of empathy in young readers. The way Adam actually acts on his fatal impulses gives the book a strong, morbid story hook, but it’s largely metaphorical rather than magical. On a less literal plane, he’s experiencing the helpless depression and self-destructive urges that so many teenagers experience when faced with a seeming lack of options, and with friends and families who seem too caught up in their own problems to fully engage with anyone else’s ballooning angst.

Old-adult appropriate? Older readers may find Adam’s detachment, aimlessness, and lack of affect frustrating, and may sympathize more with his parents and the other authority figures who can’t reach him. But while 39 Deaths wasn’t written expressly for an adult audience, it’s much richer than the average YA novel, in terms of prose style and the ideas at work. It lacks the visceral excitement of most crossover hits, like the Hunger Games or Harry Potter books, and it deals specifically with a teenage mindset. Still, it’s sophisticated enough to find an adult audience, and unusual enough to deserve one.

Could use less: Dialectic between Adam and his therapist. Adam is bored and noncommittal during these sessions, and gets little out of them; his therapist (with the unlikely name of Dr. Stinchcomb) is arch, too easily stymied, and too focused on scoring points in their verbal tennis games. Very little comes out of their conversations except a narrative perspective on why adults can’t help Adam and he needs to find his own solutions. It’s a necessary point—in life as in the book—but getting there is sometimes a bit tedious.

Could use more: Development of Adam’s eventual platonic, big-brotherish relationship with a dangerously ill younger girl. There are a lot of relationships running throughout 39 Deaths, and most of them could use more development, not because the book is thin and spare, but because they’re interesting enough to suggest that there’s more there to reveal. The 39 Deaths Of Adam Strand sometimes feels more like a mood piece than a narrative, but it gets at a lot of essential truths through the way Adam interacts not just with individuals, but with an entire town of people who wish he’d stop causing problems with his disturbing, natural-law-defying behavior. Every aspect of his implausible situation, and the entirely plausible reactions to it, make it easy to walk away wanting more.

For fans of: Robert Cormier’s grim teen novels, The Catcher In The Rye, John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars.