Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch

The Life and Death of Zebulon Finch: At the Edge of Empire (vol. 1)
Daniel Kraus
Simon and Schuster, 2015  642 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Historical Fiction/Fantasy

At the sunset of the 1800's young Chicago gangster, Zebulon Finch is shot. The only problem is: his body refuses to die. He bears the gunshot wound and his body ceases to function, yet he can still walk, talk, and feel emotion. In this unnatural state he is fated to walk into the new century as a seventeen year old boy, who will never age or die. Unsure of what else to do do and of his place in the world, Zebulon joins a traveling medicine show, where he is treated like an animal and is forced to suffer a multitude of abuses in order to sell fake product. After an unfortunate duel offers him release from this prison, he connects with a doctor bent on uncovering the secret to immortality. As the doctor sinks further into madness, Zebulon connects with a newly discovered family member and the two escape together. After a parting of ways Zebulon finds himself fighting overseas in World War I, where he befriends star soldier Church, who is destined to become Zebulon's friend. The close of the war finds Zebulon back on American soil, this time working for African American southern bootleggers. Zebulon flees the south once the clan has their way with this enterprising family and travels up to New York City. Here Zebulon lives out the roaring 20's with his army buddy Church, amidst the flappers and gangsters, while living in squalor. Eventually, after tracking down a serial killer, Zebulon lands in Hollywood, where he becomes the boy-toy to an enterprising starlet with dreams of producing films, all while limited to the sexism and age worship of the place and time. The end of our story has Zebulon again at a crossroads, this time on the brink of World War II, where Kraus leaves us until the second half of Zebulon's story is released.

Whew! I won't lie: this is a lot of book! I started in June and just finished last night (although I was reading other books simultaneously). How come the two longest books I read this year contain the name of one of nature's smallest birds? The Life and Death of Zebulon Finch felt like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which is similar in historic scope and plays with aging, although in a different way, and is much shorter, which is expected it being a short story. Zebulon was not only long, but was dense and read slowly. It is very well written, which slowed me down further, and certain parts were either so beautiful or so cryptic, that they bared a re-reading. Kraus keeps a consistent voice all the way through for Zebulon. His language is that of a hundred years ago, yet vocabulary for the time creeps into the narration. Although Zebulon does not grow in age, he grows in wisdom and we see his experience shift from bewilderment, to nonchalance to acceptance. The book is dark and explores the underbelly of society. I would not call this a happy book in any way and it focuses on the worst of human nature. Zebulon is never a star of the time or place where he is residing, but manages to exist under the radar. Kraus hints that success will be coming for Zebulon in the second half of the century, which should prove interesting. In an aside, I found it of interest that Zebulon's physical appearance and permanent scarring is never dwelled on until his stint in Hollywood, highlighting the obsession of age and beauty experienced by this particular culture. This book would have been released as an adult book had it come out twenty years ago. Most teenagers won't have the patience or maturity to tackle it. That said, it's extremely well written and is sure to win awards. It would be a great choice for college students looking for something to read over the summer or for adults. Young men will be especially drawn to the book. I recently had a male college student ask me for a reading suggestion. He said that most teen fiction was too romance driven and "girlie" and he couldn't relate to most adult fiction. He wanted something lighter than college reading, yet not a waste of time. I wish I could have given him this book. Will I go on to read the sequel once it comes out? Hmmmm, maybe an abridgment.

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