Review: “What Makes You Die” by Tom Piccirilli

My copy doesn’t have the sketch of Gideon the Komodo Dragon on the front, but I like this version a little better.

I received an ARC copy of What Makes You Die (****) through the Goodreads FirstReads program. This influences the review only to make sure that it exists, because otherwise I never would have read this. I was initially hesitant about this one, pretty sure I had decided against entering the giveaway, but I have to say that this was pretty good. It was dark without being depressing, oddly comedic at times despite the bleak outlook of the protagonist who serves as our narrator.

Tommy Pic’s life has gone down the tubes. Where once he was a rising star in Hollywood, writing a steady string of saleable screenplays, now he’s down and out, divorced and living in his mother’s basement between stays in the mental ward. He’s not even completed a screenplay in years. He is known only for Zypho, a cheap monster movie franchise he has come to loath and which no longer even brings in anything to pay the bills. Not even his agent really believes in him anymore, but that’s okay because he’s not much of an agent himself anymore. Tommy is bipolar, suffering blackouts on occasion that can last a couple of weeks at a stretch. Released once more from “the bin” after an episode, Tommy returns to find a message from his agent: the new screenplay looks great, or the first act does anyway. When can he finish acts two and three? This could be the one to get them both back in the game. The only problem? Tommy can’t remember writing it. His agent’s notes don’t even ring a bell, the characters are completely unfamiliar. Will Tommy be able to find the part of him that can still write in time to actually complete a manuscript? Will he finally manage to be rid of Gideon, the ghostly Komodo Dragon that lives in his gut and that he tried to cut out with a steak knife last Christmas? Will he be able to finally lay to rest his obsession with the girl down the street who disappeared when they were ten? And perhaps most important, will he be able to finally find love again, however fleeting, with the pretty witch from the magic shop next to his agent’s office? Telling you the answers would do you no good. You have to experience this alongside Tommy for any of this to mean anything.

As I mentioned, I’m not really a fan of books where the narrator character–and thus me the reader–has a tenous grasp on reality. Maybe it brings up too many of my own demons I’d thought long excorcised. Maybe I just don’t like being confused. At any rate, I didn’t really expect to like this book. But I did, in spite of myself. The writing was well crafted, the characters so complex as to feel like real people. Not heroes, not villains, just real people trying to survive in a world that does you no favors. It’s a bleak book, but redemptive in its own small way. The ending didn’t quite seem right to me, but I won’t tell you why. That way lies spoilers. And on the whole it was a minor flaw at worst. So where’s the line between Tommy Pic (character) and Tom Piccirilli (author)? Hard to say. It’s mentioned that Pic wrote a screenplay entitled Every Shallow Cut, which I see is another book written by Piccirilli, and his screenplay in the story is entitled What Makes You Die same as the novel. So it’s a little bit self-referential, but not enough to annoy me…..

CONTENT: R-rated language throughout. Sexual content and references, mild to mildly explicit. Perhaps no violence, strictly speaking, but there is definitely some stuff that falls into the same category and is minorly disturbing. Occult material: Tommy visits a magic shop, and the woman there tells him things that no one else outside of Tommy’s head should know. Is she a witch? Does her magic work? It seems to, but Tommy is an unreliable narrator so it is hard to be sure.

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