Every season or so, there’s a book that seemingly comes out of the blue that manages to knock our socks off. Rules for Being Dead is that book for the Summer of 2020. And its author, Kim Powers, is a bona fide breath of fresh air on the literary landscape.
Honestly, this should not have been a surprise – Kim Powers has written several other excellent books (both fiction and non-fiction) and he is a senior writer for ABC News 20/20, so there is little doubt that he knows his way around a story. But what makes Rules for Being Dead so powerful is the blend of genres – it is a mystery, it is a coming of age story, it is literary work – as well as the varied tone – it is a mixture of funny and bittersweet, it’s nostalgic, it tugs at the heart-strings and is a celebration of vintage movies.
In Rules for Being Dead, Clarke Perkins is a ten-year-old boy discovering who he is and where he fits during the 1960’s. When his mother dies under mysterious circumstances, the adults try to keep the truth from him so he must investigate on his own. Meanwhile, his mother is in limbo retracing her steps in an effort to also figure out what exactly happened that afternoon when she died. Despite the presence of a ghost, or at least a ghost’s perspective, in this narrative, Kim Powers manages to keep the story grounded in reality, eliciting empathy for all of his characters.
Rules for Being Dead is very much a story of family. As children mature, they look to their family for guidance and understanding, but sometimes even more is needed and that is when the community at large comes in play – neighbors, friends, strangers, media (here in the form of movies), and eventually exploration of the self. These paths lead to lofty concepts – love, trust, acceptance, etc. – often difficult to distill within a work of fiction, but Kim Powers has the skills to weave all of them into his coming-of-age tale without a struggle, keeping the reader seduced by the language until that moment when they close the book and breathe again, breathe differently, like breathing for the first time.
If you threw The Lovely Bones, Cinema Paradiso, and Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story into a blender the result would look something like Rules for Being Dead, but even that doesn’t fully express the bounty of treasures within. The love of cinema and film history oozes from the pages and makes for cultural touchstones all readers can connect with. I certainly hope that this is the “little” book that everyone is talking about this season.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the author. No promotion was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.