*I received an ecopy of this book from the publisher. This has not influenced my review.*
This was one of those books that called to me as soon as I read the blurb. And fortunately, this book was exactly what I was hoping it would be—strange, quirky, and offbeat, but also touching. The characters had depth and unique voices. The writing was rich. The plot was fairly slow, but that’s because the plot wasn’t really the point—this was all about the characters and their inner journeys.
I found Mike Vale, the alcoholic artist, to be the most interesting character. He seemed to be both awed at the beauty of all the life around him but also completely disenchanted with his own life and life in general. Above all else though, he was a mess. A perpetually drunk and hungover, battered, shameful mess. “Rolling chaos” he was called by one character. But, despite knowing he brought most of his problems on himself because of his drinking problem—which, just for the record, was not romanticized—and despite him being kind of a terrible person in some ways (e.g. cheated on his ex, drove drunk), I still pitied him and felt for him and found him likeable in an odd sort of way. In some ways, his disenchantment was relatable, and if not relatable, then entertaining. Haven’t we all fantasized at one point or another about punching some womanizing jerk talking loudly on his phone about his latest conquest? Or about dramatically quitting a dead-end job? Haven’t we all had one of those days where we figured we might as well jump into the next problem full-throttle since things couldn’t possibly get any worse? And his POV was written in a way that was almost poetic at times, but not in a fanciful, flowery sort of way. Kind of poetic but rough and gritty. Somehow it actually matched Mike’s simultaneous awe and disenchantment.
Marvin was interesting in a different way because of his past as Joan of Arc’s executioner, his guilt and torment over that (and the other executions and tortures he committed), and his despair over the curse of being reborn over and over but having to remember every life. The book explored the emotional impact of remembering a bunch of past lives like that in more depth than I was expecting. There was also a lot about his life as the executioner. I can’t say how accurate any of that was, but the author didn’t skimp on the harsh realities of life during that time; it was terrible and disgusting and miserable.
Even Casper turned out to be oddly lovable. He was just a young adult, fresh out of high school (I think), trying to get out of his small town and follow his dreams, and he was actually kind of sweet. He had Mike’s and Marvin’s backs, helped them out without even seeming to think about it, when they needed it.
And these three men, they just got kind of thrown together by chance (or maybe not chance, if you subscribe to Marvin’s beliefs about signs), but they stuck together, out of some sense of loyalty or divinity or maybe just plain desperation. But it was sweet.
I will say though that this book is not super fantasy/paranormal. There are the smokes, but, again, they’re not really the point. I’ve been told this book is kind of a cross between fantasy and literary fiction, so make of that what you will. It certainly didn’t stop me from enjoying it.
So overall, this is a book about unique, touching friendships, flawed but oddly likeable characters just doing their best to get by, redemption, and a whole lot of character development, and I’m glad I read it!
Anyone who likes character-focused books, flawed characters, uniquely poetic writing, and touching friendships.
Marvin Deitz has some serious problems. His mob-connected landlord is strong-arming him out of his storefront. His therapist has concerns about his stability. He’s compelled to volunteer at the local Children’s Hospital even though it breaks his heart every week.
Oh, and he’s also the guilt-ridden reincarnation of Geoffroy Thérage, the French executioner who lit Joan of Arc’s pyre in 1431. He’s just seen a woman on a Los Angeles talk show claiming to be Joan, and absolution seems closer than it’s ever been . . . but how will he find her?
When Marvin heads to Los Angeles to locate the woman who may or may not be Joan, he’s picked up hitchhiking by Mike Vale, a self-destructive alcoholic painter traveling to his ex-wife’s funeral. As they move through a California landscape populated with “smokes” (ghostly apparitions that’ve inexplicably begun appearing throughout the southwestern US), each seeks absolution in his own way.