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Play Dead

Michael Arnzen
Raw Dog Screaming Press (280 p) $27
ISBN: 1933293047
(August 2005)


There's a lot of style to Play Dead and some will find a fast-paced, entertaining read. But...

book coverMichael Arnzen is a talented, intelligent writer. His flair and potential was first noted with his first novel Grave Markings (1994). Academia intervened and the fiction slowed as he completed graduate degrees and became a college professor. He re-emerged a few years back with poetry and short fiction. A trademark of Arnzen's recent work is its cleverness. With 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories, for example, Arnzen applied the "literary" device of flash fiction exclusively to horror so as to prove his stated point that "[h]orror is the genre of the jolt, the shock, the spark." Each short-short story was intended to elicit an immediate reaction from the reader. It was an interesting experiment. Some of the stories succeed as stories, many of them don't. I applaud the experiment and delight in the ingenuity. It may even stand as a pioneering effort. But, as a story collection, it is not a complete success -- at least by my definition.

[In some ways, 100 Jolts is an expression of the 1984 Stephen King statement in Danse Macabre that is usually abbreviated to, "I'll go for the gross-out." A fuller rendition of that quotation is: "I recognize terror as the finest emotion... and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud." I wonder if, more than twenty years on, Stephen King still feels this way? I can't speak for King, but, to me, horror is much more than "shock." Nor can I agree with Arnzen's belief (also from his introduction), "Horror stories conflict is always about life and death, but death...always comes as a surprise. The climax of a horror tale is almost unilaterally a killing blow, catching someone or something unaware."]

Back to the point -- Arnzen is a clever writer and 100 Jolts is a clever experiment and worth reading, but it is not a great collection. Play Dead, his long-awaited second novel, is also clever, but it is not a great novel.

Play Dead's cleverness is displayed in several ways. The most obvious: It's about card playing and is divided into four parts, one for each suite of the deck. It has 52 chapters, each representing a card of the deck. Another example: A character named Axe is a cook. He gets "the axe" at work. A character thinks, "Axe got the axe." A couple of paragraphs later the same character thinks about how he must "bury the hatchet" and make peace. On the next page the character finds Axe in a dumpster and decides he has to bury Axe and thinks: "Had to bury the hatchet. Literally." This is a book in which you know what will happen next if a character says, "You bet your life." And, of course, there is a great deal of wordplay with card and gambling-related terms.

The plot revolves around Johnny Frieze, a none-too-bright gambler down on his luck. Johnny sees life as sheer chance and pure luck. A bad guy, Nebo, and his henchman, Winston, are setting up a game of "Butcher Boy" and each of four players must make up a suite of the deck by taking Polaroids that "capture life." This are then turned into cards. Extra points are added for creativity. (I'm sure there is no need to translate what "capturing life" means.) Once the deck is complete the four players are to play to the death with the single survivor walking away with a million bucks (and a lot of bad karma).

Why? We are, at first, offered an obvious extolling of cliches by Nebo: "Playing people...Life is a game...Without the possibility of loss there is no game...This is my game...." We later get a possible supernatural tie-in involving "prophecy cards" and the power of capital "F" Fate.

Johnny becomes a player and is to provide the spades. Johnny's fellow players are Shorty, Ferret, and Preacher. Like most fictional characters with unfortunate nicknames, these guys are homicidal maniacs and immediately go about "capturing life" with great psychopathological fervor. Johnny, however, tries to cheat fate and Nebo.

There are two female characters. Gin is Johnny's love interest and, therefore, endangered. The first paragraph of their first love scene begins: "Her lips tested like warm bread..." and ends "She tasted like a warm worm of menthol scotch." She's a tasty girl. Violet is an old slot machine queen. (We are never sure how old. A hint comes from the end and places her over 65, maybe 70.) Violet reads the Tarot and talks about fate-with-a-small-"f". Violet has some odd quirks for someone who evidently believes in her cards -- like keeping her deck bound with a rubber band and calling card that sure sounds like the Knight of Swords the King of Swords. I'm reviewing from an Advanced Review Copy, so maybe the knight/king will change, but, the point is: for novel in which Tarot plays a role, it seems a bit under-researched.

There's a penultimate card game (these cards are well-researched and far more convincing, even if you are not a veteran poker player) and a clever trick ending that may pull the rug out from under the entire book for you.

Play Dead lacks the sort of authenticity that is hard to define, but notable when missing. Instead of living, breathing, right-out-of-Vegas characters we get varying degrees of characterizations and no real feel for Vegas's unique reality. Any environment demands a response and Vegas demands a great deal. A better sense of place might also have provided more psychological nuance and more atmosphere. Oh we are told Vegas is "heaven right smack dab in the middle of hell" and that that it offers the tourists "one big excuse to be a loser for a day, and be damned proud of throwing their money away in a perverse ritual as moronic as religious fasting" -- but we feel neither the damnation of the flames nor the artificial salvation of air conditioning. Likewise the living hell of addiction is an underlying metaphor, but the reader is unlikely to feel any of that particular hell either.

As I said before the, some readers will find the novel be a fast-paced, entertaining read. Maybe it will be "good" for them. Not all novels are, after all, "great." But this one could have been somewhat greater and shown more than the potential the author is already known to possess. Or, perhaps, Arnzen's talent might have been better served with fresh material. (Play Dead's first incarnation was as his Master's thesis.) Whatever the case, I look forward to his future work. (from Cemetery Dance #53)

Note: You may be interested in reading: Michael Arnzen: Horror, Poetry and Tabloid Truth, a 2000 DarkEcho interview.