Former advertising copywriter Joe Nelms takes some bold risks with his debut novel, THE LAST TIME I DIED. Thanks to a surprisingly vivid and involving prose style, the risks mostly work and make up for the few shortcomings.
Christian Franco, the narrator, is in a downward spiral and doing nothing to stop it. His marriage failed, so he spends his spare time in bars getting drunk and picking fights with strangers. This behavior soon gets him fired from his lucrative New York City job, resulting in more drinks and more bar fights. It’s gotten to the point where getting beat up is something he looks forward to.
One evening, a bar brawl brings Christian close to death. As he fades from consciousness, he suddenly experiences a flood of memories, particularly those involving the death of his mother when he was 8 years old, and how his father was arrested for murdering his mom. It’s the first time he has recalled anything from this frightening and confused time. When he awakes, he finds himself obsessed with discovering more of these memories.
Convinced that the near-death experience is the only way to unlock these memories, Christian sets out to find a way to bring him close enough to death to release more of these memories without actually dying. It’s a journey that takes him to the darkest and most dangerous sides of the city, yet he is certain that this skewed quest for self-discovery will turn his life completely around.
Nelms challenges readers first to accept the still controversial concept of repressed memories — that the mind takes snapshots of painful moments from the past, yet keeps them hidden due to their traumatic content. Then Nelms would have us believe that a near-death experience — rather than psychotherapy — is the most effective way to release these disturbing memories.
Before any of this, the author would have us sympathize with a completely unlikable protagonist. Christian, by his own admission in the opening chapters, is a loser who relishes and enhances his failures. So when he first tries to duplicate the near-death experience himself, we almost hope he succeeds beyond his expectations.
Yet Nelms amazingly convinces us to look beyond both the controversial themes, as well as his main character’s self-loathing through his first-person prose. Christian may hate himself and the mess he’s made of his life, but he can’t dismiss his sense of insight. So he drenches his voice in a mixture of sardonic wit and intense emotion that is utterly compelling and nearly impossible to resist. When his quest for near-death takes him to one of the most hidden, violent and inhumane sections of urban life, we willingly go with him and share in his unsettling observations.
Working against all of this, unfortunately, are the far too many flashback chapters where Christian relives the disintegration of his marriage and the relationship with the woman he once deeply loved. After the third such chapter, the intended effect is diminished and threatens the impact of what the deeper memories have in store.
It’s rare that a first novel asks so much of its readers, and rarer still when it succeeds. THE LAST TIME I DIED may not be completely successful in all its risks, but comes close enough to easily make us wonder what Nelms will try with his next outing. —Alan Cranis