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
’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
, has written a soufflé of a novel in Ernie
: 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
is an unqualified success.

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