“The Death of Patsy McCoy” Review…Arrr
Arrr, me hearties, it be talk like a pirate day. So affix yerself solidly to the mast while we weather these rocky e-book reviewing waters. When last we spoke, I told ye if ye sent a parrot to me ship, a scrolled version o’ yer e-book clutched in its talons, I’d affix my eyeglass to studyin’ yer jet black prose.
Soon after, a scurvy seadog by the name of Levi Montgomery sailed an e-scroll of his short tome into my harbor. So screw yer courage to a place that sticks and let’s get on with the review of his novella, “The Death of Patsy McCoy.” Arrr.
Alright, enough of the pirate talk. I’d considered writing the whole review that way, but it doesn’t seem respectful to the author, so let’s do this legit. Arrr…ahem.
“The Death of Patsy McCoy” is an ambitious work. Telling a story through the eyes of five separate characters is difficult, and this is what the novella does. The book focuses on the events of one tragic summer – a new kid comes to a dying mill town, tries to fit in with a rough gang of country boys, and suffers the repercussions of being a pudgy and awkward outsider. The boys name the new kid Patsy, violently haze him, all the while assuring him he’ll eventually be one of them if he does what they tell him to do.
The story is advanced through five separate sections (with a sixth conclusion section), and each section focuses on a different viewpoint. The book purposefully toys with the reader, sowing misinformation, hinting at clues to the timeline of Patsy’s death and slowly revealing more as each character takes up the mantel of the story. We get to see several of the same events through the eyes of different characters.
When it works, it works well. Of the five characters, the most strongly written is the second, a mentally challenged kid named Spittle. In high school I spent a semester working in a buddy system called the SELF program – a program that paired mentally challenged teens with regular teens for gym class. The mental confusion Spittle experiences from peer pressure rang true to some of my experiences with the higher functioning teenagers I worked with in SELF. Spittle’s was a believable viewpoint.
However, the voices of several of the characters don’t ring as true, breaking immersion. Getting the voice of a character right is one of the hardest things to do. Take John Updike’s classic short story, “A&P”, which is one of the best examples of character voice that I know. Updike first line is, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.”
Instantly, we have a feeling for the voice of the character, just from that line. It could have been, “Three girls in nothing but bathing suits walk in,” which would have told us nothing. But with a simple inversion, we already understand the voice of the character. We understand how he talks.
Montgomery’s novella gets some lines right. In the third section, which focuses on Babyface, the most malevolent of the five hazing boys, says, “Can’t believe he went on to become a judge. Same age as me, dead already. Who blows your brains out at 37?”
From this line know this character. He’s flip and disrespectful, a fast-talker, a guy who only cares about himself. The hypothetical question gives no credence to the dead, and by extension, to the idea of death, which dehumanizes him. Now we know who he is.
However, only a sentence or two later, the same character suddenly waxes philosophic, “It lies within each of us to choose the time and place and manner of our own death…”
We all have our different sides, but I struggled to follow a character who could instantly transform from flip to hallmark card within the span of two sentences. I didn’t buy it. And for a novella that depends so much on the strength of each characters’ voice, these moments of uncharacteristic armchair philosophy made it difficult for me. I felt like I was hearing Levi Montogomery, not Farm Boy, Babyface, Bowels, or Patty.
Of course, even for a novella that depends on character voice, voice isn’t the whole shebang. Story matters, too. So was the story in “The Death of Patsy McCoy” good? Did I learn anything? Was I entertained? I’m not sure, but this uncertainty isn’t a drawback, it’s a plus for the novella.
For example: American History X is a powerful movie, one that everyone should see, but it’s not good. It doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. It doesn’t entertain you. It makes you feel squirmy and nauseous, but also that you are somehow better for feeling awful. And that’s how I felt about “The Death of Patsy McCoy.” It didn’t make me feel good. It made me feel sick to my stomach. But it made me feel like I had stuff to think about.
Whenever I finish a book, I always set it down on the bedside (yeah, I read in bed – my bed is soft and I like it) and stare up at the ceiling for awhile and think about it. If the book didn’t make me think, I’m up and taking a whiz inside of five minutes, whistling while I circle the bowl. If I feel like I have something to think about, I can stare at the ceiling for hours. Those long ones are the “thousand page stare” (like the thousand yard stare, but way less haunting).
“The Death of Patsy McCoy” made me stare at the ceiling for twenty-six minutes, give or take four minutes (it’s not a precise science here). Do with that what you will.
So, overall, I’d recommend “The Death of Patsy McCoy” to a reader who was willing to look past its flaws in character voice. If a reader is willing to do that, there’s something of value inside those digital pages.
Thanks for reading.