The Pallbearers Club by Paul Tremblay Book Review

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Like many writers before him, Paul Tremblay needed a genre pivot to make his move. After early works of satirical or dystopian sci-fi (including Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye), Tremblay switched to horror with 2015’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which has since earned best-selling status and praise from Stephen King, among others.

His latest novel The Pallbearers Club continues macabre but adds the dimension of a quasi-autobiography. As Tremblay says of the protagonist Art Barbara in his afterword: “To be clear, Art Barbara is me and not me. Well, well, he’s mostly me!” The book is set in Tremblay’s own precinct, Massachusetts and Providence, RI. This part of the country also happens to be my backyard, so I can attest to the veracity of Tremblay’s portrayal of this place from the 1980s to almost the present.

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Who is Art Barbara and what is his story? Before we reveal that, let’s talk about the presentation of the book. We are led to believe that this is not Tremblay’s composition but the found manuscript of Art’s memoirs. A familiar conceit. But to complete the narratives, we discover that the manuscript was annotated by a woman named Mercy Brown. She interjects pages of commentary at crucial points and directs her handwritten red ink critique of Art. The dual and dueling narrators bring a high degree of vagueness to the events of the book that proves both mysterious and entertaining. As with Nabokov’s Pale Fire, our understanding of the story is complicated by Mercy’s contradictory statements.

Art first meets us in 1988 as a sad high school bastard. “Nerd” or “lazybones” or “eccentric” would be one level higher for him. His personal life is bleak and he has no hobbies or passions. Fairly smart and adept with words (his memoir is full of surprising metaphors and adept storytelling), he is determined to collect resume material for his college applications. So he founds the Pallbearers Club. Basically, he has in mind a group of student interns who fill in as mourners at the lonely funerals of the unwanted. The scenes at the funeral home, which the students sponsor, offer plenty of black comedy:We made it off the stairs [with the casket]… I was not feeling well. My vision was blurry and unreadable inkblots appeared at the edges. My head filled with wet peat and moss, and my ears rang as I sank into the swamp of myself… One of the men in black suits said, “You look blue,” and the other added, “More greenish.” As if he were seasick.« ”

In this hauntingly emotional place, Art meets his lifelong nemesis/companion/dark shadow, Mercy Brown.

Mercy shares her name with a real Rhode Islander whose body was exhumed in 1892 by villagers who thought she was a vampire. This knowledge puts Art on high alert. Should he – and should we – believe that 1988 Mercy is the same creature? A girl in an army jacket covered in pop culture pins making punk music out of art? Very unlikely.

And yet, with the entry of Mercy, Art’s life takes a decisive turn into occult realms where inexplicable things happen. As Art looks at one of the “standard” photos Mercy takes of an open coffin, “there was a green smudge on the film floating over the dead woman’s chest.” Later, Art watches Mercy sleep and notes that a blanket wrapped around her wrist “pulsed like exposed musculature from a glittering, intricate network of connective and vascular tissues.”

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Art tolerates and even welcomes these boring thrills. But the two teenagers eventually have a fight and break up in a creepy way.

Art grows up, becomes a C-list rock musician – finally achieves a bit of that cool hipster vibe he’s always craved – and then, just before today, Mercy reappears. At this point, Art’s life really gets out of control. He gives up his career, friends and personal hygiene and falls into paranoia. Is this cascade of bad luck his own doing or the culmination of a far-reaching conspiracy? The reader is left to drift deliciously.

Tremblay’s depiction of both the life of a New England youth in the 1980s and the rock club scene in the 1990s and early 21st century is vivid and accurate. He portrays Providence particularly well (with a few nods to our local son, HP Lovecraft).

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The main attraction of this story is the intricate portrait of a man full of potential, desire and talent, but who ultimately betrays himself through a not-so-subtle desire to fail. I was reminded of Oskar in Gunter Grass’ “The Tin Drum”: forever a stunted youth. Art has made himself a crippled thing to be “safe,” and yet he and Mercy are two planets locked in a mutually destructive orbit.

Readers interested in analyzing mysteries of identity and reality, and those who simply enjoy quiet horrors and the portrait of a disintegrating mentality, will find The Pallbearers Club to be a welcome casket for chills.

Paul Di Filippo is the author of the steampunk trilogy The Deadly Kiss-Off and The Summer Thieves.

William morning. 288 pages. $27.99

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Chris Estrada

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