March 10, 2015
I am quite sure I am not the only one who picked up Gabriel Squailia’s Dead Boys based on Jay Kristoff’s review of the author’s style,
“If China Miéville, Neil Gaiman, and Hunter S. Thompson had a ménage à trois, Dead Boys would be the love child. A cracking book.”
High praise indeed. The image is rather titillating and the comparisons are apt, but rather than immediately compare the new author to institutional figures in the fantasy genre, why not let Squailia pave his own way just as Dead Boys protagonist, Jacob Campbell, paves his.
Dead Boys takes place solely in the Land of the Dead and follows the gentleman corpse and preservationist, Jacob Campbell, and a crew of eccentrics, including a young idiot savant Remington, named due to the hole in his head caused by a Remington shotgun (obvious yet delightful), a dandy and swindler named Leopold, the headless corpses Adam and Eve who wash up on the River Lethe where all things dead enter the Land of the Dead, and several others we meet along the way, including a rebellious and amusing Bonemadien. Jacob and crew set out on a journey through the Land of the Dead to find The Living Man.
The Living Man is the stuff of underworld legends, a man who crossed from the World of the Living into that of the dead and continued breathing. Supposedly, The Living Man met his fate in the tunnels of Dead City, Land of the Dead’s sprawling metropolis. Jacob’s sole purpose is to find The Living Man and cross back to the Land of the Living with him. This takes him on an unexpected journey full of underworld history, charming characters, tales older than the bones that inhabit the Land of the Dead, and decay unlike anything our preservationist has witnessed before.
Jacob Campbell is a preservationist by trade, a kind of plastic surgeon to the dead. Whoever said the dead didn’t want to look fresh? Appearances are valued no matter where one takes up residence. Jacob fuses leather to the face for soft fresh dead cheeks, tufts of fur for full lustrous hair, and new body parts in place of those decaying. If you find yourself with a new set of gams or even new genitals (oh yeah, there’s a penis swap), take some time to familiarize yourself with your new body parts, for Dead Boys gives us insight into the wanderings of new limbs.
Jacob’s unique trade enables him to being his journey. Jacob visits Ma Kicks, a sort of afterlife clairvoyant with a quasi-developed fetus whose tiny legs dangle from her belly kicking forcefully, who can give valuable information to Jacob about The Living Man. When Jacob first encounters Ma Kicks, he wins her trust by helping Remington fix a crow’s dilapidated wings. Ma Kicks agrees to allow Remington to accompany Jacob on his journey. Our idiot savant serves more purpose than Jacob could image, as the crow sees through Remington’s eyes showing them battles, trials, and landscapes that lay ahead on their journey.
With Remington in tow and of course the crow, as it has taken up residency in the hole in Remington’s head, they set out for Dead City to band together with the rest of their rag-tag crew and find The Living Man. Finding The Living Man, who is more of a Living Head at this point (cue 3rd Rock from the Sun’s Big Giant Head) is easy enough, but the journey they must go on to locate the pieces they need in order to return to the Land of the Living is more than any of them bargained for.
What is particularly interesting about Dead Boys is the story of the Land of the Dead and the tales it has woven throughout its eternal history. We learn of two ancient women warriors who during a fight plunged one another to their respective deaths, washed up on the River Lethe, and began dueling their way to the farthest regions of the Land of the Dead. They fought until they were bone dust. We meet the eternals who practice the ancient mystical art of bone dust fighting. It is the eternals from which the Bonemadien fled, and yet she convinces them to assist Jacob and crew in their quest.
At its core, Dead Boys is the story of misfits searching for a man to help Jacob cross to the Land of the Living, to right his wrongs, and to feel alive again in the naive way we all hope to feel alive again. But what he learns on the journey is what we all know and yet can’t seem to muster the strength to admit: feeling alive again is wishing for the repetition of the past and wishing for that which isn’t repeatable. What Squailia leaves us with is a very supernatural idea: to breathe life into what’s to come, even if what’s to come washes up on the River Lethe.
I appreciate the agency and power the women corpses wield in the Dead Boys, though their stories do not come about until the end of the book and thus feel somewhat compacted. What if we learned of the ancient women warriors early on in Dead Boys? How would their story, how would all the battles and trials for which they are responsible, impact the story had we known their tale earlier? What if the eternals were sprinkled throughout Dead City witnessing and recruiting members for their mystical religion? Would these tales seem less compact if they were dusted throughout Dead Boys?
A cheeky read and full of the quirky characters that keep my heart beating, Dead Boys gave me the fantastical journey I’ve been dying (har) to read.