Have you ever heard the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again?” Well, Adam Strand takes that message to heart: when his first attempt to end his life fails, he tries again. And again. And again. His favorite method is jumping, particularly from the bridges near his home. He’s also tried poisoning, burning, cutting, and shooting himself, but regardless of how many times he tries, he just keeps coming back to life.
The motivation behind Adam’s perpetual suicide mission is boredom, plain and simple. Existence seems pointless to him; he feels trapped and suffocated by the monotony of life, the repetition of waking up, watching the minutes tick by, going to sleep at night, and waking up again the next day to repeat the cycle. Adam’s outlook on life is summed up by this sentence: “[E]verything is moving in one meaningless mess, a merry-go-round that I never should have gotten on in the first place and every day is one turn too many.”
It’s not too difficult to see why Adam might feel this way. His parents aren’t the most fascinating people – his mother’s only occupation seems to be perpetual complaining and worrying, and his father is a loan officer who devotes himself to boring things like the most efficient way to get dressed or eat breakfast. There isn’t much to do in the Midwestern town where Adam lives, and fewer people to do it with. Many of the scenes in the book depict Adam hanging out with his so-called friends, who don’t necessarily like one another – they just put up with each other because they don’t have any other options. They spend their time drinking pilfered crème de menthe, making up silly rules and regulations, and watching dead cows decay in the river. These scenes are mind-numbingly dull to read, so I can imagine that for Adam, they’d be even duller to participate in.
Showing all of this is helpful in that it provides some explanation of why Adam might be motivated to kill himself, again and again. However, there’s a fine line between simply representing a character’s boredom and actually boring the reader as well. I became so sick of Adam, his selfishness, his dull-as-dishwater family, his asshole friends, and the whole pointless book that I felt detached and mildly annoyed.
If there had been some stimulating content thrown into the mix as well, it may have redeemed the book for me. For example, there was plenty of room to explore human emotions and relationships – a story about a suicidal boy who can’t stay dead provides ample opportunities to examine family dynamics, friendship, grief, etc. Much to my disappointment, though, Galloway never capitalizes upon this potential.
All of the emotions in the story fall flat, and I spent much of the reading experience in a state of consternation. Where was the grief? Why weren’t Adam’s friends and family angry that they didn’t mean enough to Adam to inspire him to live? And even after seeing Adam rejuvenated 39 times, how were his parents not living in constant dread that Adam might kill himself one time too many and actually stay dead?
It didn’t help that things that should have been traumatizing or shocking were treated like no big deal. There were times I wanted to stop and say, “Hold on Mr. Galloway, wait a minute. You just mentioned that Adam blew his brains out in the basement and that his dad had to clean everything up. And then you calmly moved on to a discussion about schoolwork. Don’t you think we should stop and dwell on the fact that his dad had to CLEAN UP HIS OWN CHILD’S BRAIN MATTER?”
That’s how the whole book went – stuff that should have been central to the story fell by the wayside, and the trivial, tedious stuff got page after page of description. I didn’t even get the satisfaction of having my morbid curiosity slaked, as there were practically no details about the logistics of Adam’s suicides and recoveries.
One last complaint, and then I promise to stop whining and finish this review. The blurb on the book jacket promises that eventually, “Adam is struck by the reality that life is an ever-expanding web of impact and forged connections, and that nothing—not even death—can sever those bonds.” This sentence led me to believe that there would be some sort of lesson or discovery for Adam and the reader as well, but after finishing the book I don’t feel like I really got anything from the reading experience. There was no big epiphany, no meaning or insight gained.
The overall effect of The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand was that I, as the reader, felt about as dull and jaded as Adam by the end of the novel. I thought a book about suicide, life, and death would inspire some sort of strong reaction in me, like sadness, hope, or a newfound appreciation for the sanctity of life. That wasn’t the case, and I was left disappointed.