EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 16, 2014

'The Last Time I Died' hooks readers with darkness, desperation

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Correspondent

---- — “The Last Time I Died”

by Joe Nelms

c. 2014, Tyrus Books $16.99; 255 pages

One minute at a time.

That’s how you get through a rough patch in your life. You breathe, then take another breath. Watch the clock tick in a circle. And then you do it again because, though it sounds trite, time really is your friend.

Or, as in the new novel, “The Last Time I Died” by Joe Nelms, time is what gets you to despair in the first place.

Lisa hadn’t wanted a divorce. Christian Franco had to at least admit that.

She had, in fact, begged him to go to therapy, to do something to get over his past so they could move forward together. But when a man witnessed his father killing his mother thirty years ago, when the man was just an eight-year-old… well, what was there to say to a therapist that hadn’t already been said?

And the truth was, Christian couldn’t remember anything before that night. Not a thing. His first memories were of being in foster care, of the psychologist who raped him, of knowing that he was a burden to Foster Mother. Why dredge that stuff up?

And so, with Lisa out of his life and his house, Christian spent his nights getting drunk and picking fights with random strangers in local bars, hoping that either alcohol or a thorough beating might feel good.

A nice butt-kicking was what he lived for.

Until he died for it.

Those first minutes in the hospital were odd: everything was black, then white, and his memories “whooshed” backward until an eight-year-old Christian saw his mother’s bagged corpse, and began to re-live his father’s hand-cuffed departure from their brownstone.

And then he was revived.

Angry, and filled with more questions than answers, Christian knew he had to die again. But repeated suicide attempts would raise red flags and he knew he was playing with a sick kind of fire. He couldn’t take the chance that he would die and not come back. He needed someone – a rogue doctor, maybe? - to kill him again and again until the memories all returned.

But there was one thing he never considered: what if remembering was worse than death?

Reading “The Last Time I Died” is a lesson in patience. It’s scattered (on purpose, as it turns out) and initially somewhat hard to follow, filled with frustration, drollness and words that may send you scrambling for the dictionary.

And yet – you just can’t look away.

Once you get past the first few pages, in fact, author Joe Nelms’s got you. He’ll let you believe that his main character, Christian, is an unredeemable (though wounded) first-class jerk. Christian is downright unlikeable, actually, but there’s something about this story that makes us stick around, knowing we’ll get a pay-off – and we do.

Fans of darkness and desperation will eat this book up, as will anyone who cherishes a story with hints of the iconoclastic. If that’s you, then I know “The Last Time I Died” is a book you won’t mind spending a few hours with.