Love, Death, and Comedy

Author: Richard Roper

Andrew’s life has a set and comforting rhythm. All in all, as long as he doesn’t look too closely, it’s a good life. Not a perfect one, but what’s missing can be made up for in the realm of fantasy, in the comfort of routine, in the subterranean friendships of Internet forums and the dulcet tones of turning records and Ella Fitzgerald’s tunes bouncing off walls and through the long nights. Yes, Andrew’s life is just fine so long as no one rocks the boat and no one guesses his one dangerous secret: the fake wife and family he created and now religiously maintains to pass a job interview.

Enter Peggy, brand new employee at the Death Administration Department of Public Health, that little known institute responsible for burying the unloved, the forgotten, the ones who die on the margins with no ties, decomposing slowly in bedrooms and on old sofas until finally, someone stumbles on them and the law quickly, tidily cleans up the mess. Peggy needs a new mentor and Andrew is the only one in the department who volunteers to do the dirty bit – visit the homes, paw through the artifacts of a lost life looking for enough money to bury the dead and any ties, family or otherwise, who should be notified, who might be interested in saying goodbye. And so, as Andrew shows Peggy the ropes, a surprising friendship forms, a dangerous bond that threatens to bring down Andrew’s walls, threaten his acquiescence, and make him think about everything that happens when someone lives and dies all alone.

Richard Roper’s dark comedy is far more than a mere write-up can capture. There is certainly a sadness and seriousness here – a look at those forgotten – but also a call to life, a reminder that we can and should change our lives instead of taking the easy way out of the dilemma, whether that be physical death or a kind of mental and spiritual death. It certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of subject matter that would ever be funny or romantic, yet it is both, with a sort of tongue-and-cheek lugubriousness. Life, in its way, is just a dark comedy and Roper plays with this, taking us away from the more depressing angles of the story and encouraging us towards the light, all the while layering on the sarcasm and admitting that when something can go hilariously wrong, it most certainly and dramatically will.

Now here is where I must step outside the praise for a moment and issue my one and only complaint. I normally would never like this type of book (and not for the reason you think.). The obvious romance that leads to redemption and second chances is set between the lovably befuddled and in-denial Andrew and Peggy, a married woman with children. In the casual way of much contemporary literature, marriage is hardly seen as an obstacle to seeking romantic partners elsewhere and welcoming them cheerfully. Now that’s not the full way this story deals with it; there are complicating factors that make Peggy’s husband less than sympathetic, but the overall story is casual about the real effects of divorce both for the spouses and the affected children. It makes the transition look painless and encourages readers that any sign of difficulty should be met with a switch in partners. It makes me mad, although I ultimately enjoyed the novel far too much to be as judgmental as I otherwise would have been. Still, the entire field of modern literature is deftly targeting the sacred.

Nevertheless, as the story continues, Andrew’s greatest secret comes under scrutiny – his fake wife and children, created solely for the purpose of passing an improbable job interview and then quickly spiraling out of control as the dreamy eyed Andrew first enjoys his fake life and then later finds it amazingly stressful (I’m talking about a man who organizes his lies with spreadsheets after all). This fake life is both integral to continue and impossible to live under anymore  as Andrew and Peggy grow closer; Andrew starts to see himself in the empty apartments reeking of death and loneliness. Add in an abusive family, a blackmail attempt, some model trains, Internet friends come to life, work issues, a weird boss with a fixation on dinner parties, a painful memory, and the ongoing mystery of the dead old man and his wooden swans, and you have moments of poignancy interspersed with humor, anger, love, and everything in between.

In the end, How Not to Die Alone is an unforgettable story, both easy to read and compelling for its depth, uniqueness, and just-right sarcasm. This is a book for those who love fiction, drama, comedy, and romance. It has a little bit of everything and in the end, a lot of soul, compassion, and hope (despite the far more insidious cheating angle).

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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