Written by: Bruce Priddy
With his latest novella, What Makes You Die, Thomas Piccirilli does not deliver a horror tale. To be certain, horrible things have happened to our protagonist Tommy Pic before we meet him and are racing toward him the more he dangles off the frayed ends of his life. Instead, Piccirilli gives us an intense, surreal, absurd and masterful character study of a man on the raggedy edge.
Pic is a Hollywood screenwriter, though what claims he can make on still holding that title are tenuous at best. His most well-known work is a sci-fi monster flick that has been recut as a children’s movie in Japan, and into a porno in the States. He is an divorcee alcoholic, forced to live in the basement of his mother’s New York home, unable to write. When the book opens, Pic is waking up in the mental ward after the latest in a series of breakdowns. Upon release, Pic hears from his agent, who wants to see more of the script Tommy sent him the beginnings of, a script Tommy cannot remember writing. His agent is convinced the eponymous script will put them back in the graces of Hollywood, if Tommy can finish it.
Piccirilli puts us in Tommy’s head as he stumbles through his world, trying to find or provoke his other self, the one who lives in his black-outs, the one he is convinced still has the creative spark. This is a world populated with talking dogs, witches; potential occult sacrifices, underground fight clubs wherein mental patients are pressed into combat, ghosts, phantom babies and the ancient spirit of a Komodo dragon that has taken residence in Tommy’s gut. None of these may be real, and instead symptoms of a fractured mind, set asunder when his best friend, the girl he compares all others to, disappeared when they were kids. Even Tommy admits to his own unreliable narrative.
What Makes Us Die is a story of loss. Tommy Pic is a man who has lost so much but at the same time refuses to lose anything, who has yet to realize that loss does not always mean diminishment. Sometimes we need to lose or lose things in order to grow. What makes us die are those things we can’t let go of.
Weighing in at around 140 pages, this is the perfect length for the story Piccirilli tells. Too much longer, and the introspection and absurdity would have become tedious. But despite the short length, you will feel as if you’ve been through the ringer with Tommy. What Makes You Die feels much longer than its page count. And that’s not a bad thing. The writing in this work possesses no eloquence, Piccirilli instead opting for a beautiful brutality. The world of Tommy Pic’s is one of a subtle, and not so, savagery, and the writing reflects this.
But the book isn’t perfect. The relationship and hijinks of Tommy and his agent are far too reminiscent of that of Hank Moody and Charlie Runkle on Californication. The story ends rather abruptly, with few questions resolved. But such is life, our endings abrupt with few answers.
Order What Makes You Die here.