Death Writ Small: Matthew Flaming Reviews Adam Voith’s Stand Up, Ernie Baxter: You’re Dead

Certain books, for me, evoke certain seasons. Autumn is a time for intensity, for burning prose or burning ideas. Winter is for big books, tomes that land with a heavy thud, books that you don’t read so much as stow away inside — caves of words that offer shelter from the cold. But Adam Voith’s newest novel, Stand Up, Ernie Baxter: You’re Dead, fits in neither of these categories: instead, this is a book for spring.

Ernie Baxter begins with the death of the eponymous character, a small-time stand up comedian from the Midwest, who watches and narrates from heaven as his friends and family cope with his passing. In particular the novel focuses on Ernie’s estranged ex-girlfriend, Kyra (the one who got away), who is charged by Ernie’s mother with the task of sorting through his laptop computer. As she reads the dead man’s letters and comedy sketches, Kyra finds herself reluctantly embarking on a nostalgia-fueled journey of discovery, trying to understand who Ernie was before he died and at the same time (naturally) coming to terms with her dissatisfaction about the direction her own life has taken.

These themes — death and memory and the fragility of identity — are hefty subjects to say the least, and in the hands of another writer could easily become overbearing or self-important. In the hands of Adam Voith, however, they are neither of these things. Voith, who is also the founder of Seattle’s TNI Books, has written a soufflé of a novel in Ernie Baxter: a story filled with so much sweetness and gentle good-nature that if it dealt with any subjects lighter than mortality and the pain of forgetting, it might float away entirely.

This is not to say that Ernie Baxter is a trivial book. Instead, it delivers a subtle commentary on life and death in the kind of clean, unassuming language most often found in young adult fiction. Describing heaven, for example, Ernie tells us:

I’ve still got the body. The cancer’s gone, but it’s still arms, legs, feet, and hands. I’m not floating around, I’m waking. As it turns out, the streets are indeed paved with gold, which is bitchin’, and the rivers are flowing clean, but I’ve yet to see anyone with a harp…. Up here, I could go on and on with weighty revelations and new prophecies, but it only gives new ironic flavor to preaching to the choir. Watch these words fall quietly down, reaching the globe just as all sound, meaning, and importance fully disappears from them.

Stylistically, I found myself comparing Ernie Baxter to works like Steve Martin’s Shopgirl and Francesca Lia Block’s I Was a Teenage Fairy — books that share, with the best of young adult writing, an essential clarity and an ability to talk about sorrow in the language of joy. This resemblance to young adult fiction is heightened by the comic strips and sketches that punctuate this novel. Drawn by Mike Lowery, they illustrate Ernie’s comedy routines and nicely complement Voith’s writing.

The story is anchored by the title character’s comedy sketches, which are reprinted as they are discovered and read by Kyra on the dead man’s computer. Ernie’s comedy manages to be at once brutally honest about the disappointments of life and infused with a weird innocence — social commentary in the language of a Junior High cafeteria. Like Kyra, we learn about the novel’s dead narrator mainly through these sketches, which produces an eerie reading experience similar to the voyeuristic thrill of looking through someone’s diary. Although never really laugh-out-loud funny, in this context Ernie’s sketches become powerful and touching as the last remnants of an essentially unknown life.

Ernie Baxter is not without certain failings however. In general, the plot of this novel is about as suspenseful as a laundry cycle and ultimately, when it comes to meditations on mortality and the human condition, Voith’s latest definitely falls into the lightweight category. But as a demonstration of how weighty themes can be handled with grace, humor, and sweetness, Ernie Baxter is an unqualified success.

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