Reviewed by Jed Cruz
HOW NOT TO DIE ALONE
By Richard Roper
336 pages. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
While How Not to Die Alone is without a doubt a very funny book, it’s the rare novel that can convincingly capture the crushing existential dread of coming home to an empty apartment, putting on some old timey jazz, and reveling in the all-too-comfortable solitude of a life spent safe and alone.
Andrew is 42, single, and deals with the dead for a living: he sifts through the apartments and houses left behind by people who die alone. It’s his job to search for any next of kin and for any money the deceased had that might be used to pay for their funerals. He’s obsessed with model trains and Ella Fitzgerald. He’s a bit cynical and he dislikes his coworkers.
He has also led his officemates to believe that he is happily married with two kids.
How Not to Die Alone begins with this snapshot of loneliness — a man trapped by his desire to conform and be normal. He talks about his son’s interests and his daughter’s allergies and his wife’s high-powered law career. The thing is, none of it is real.
Andrew is content to live his life and his lie, just getting by with no regard for the future. However, when newcomer Peggy joins their team at work and begins cultivating a friendship with Andrew, he starts to think that there might be something more to life — something beyond chatting about obscure model train engines online, or pretending to have a family, or being the only attendee in a funeral for a person whom the world has long forgotten. There’s just the matter of that little big lie that he has been carefully assembling and maintaining.
Richard Roper’s narration of Andrew’s life is on point: witty, straightforward, and with just the right flavor of bitterness. Andrew carries his concocted family life like a great weight, and makes the most idiotic decisions out of his fear of being discovered. It’s a serious topic seen through the absurdity of mundane everyday life, and it’s hard not to smile at the more ridiculous moments and characters that Andrew encounters. The writing is genuinely laugh-out-loud in a couple of places, although a handful of jokes and punchlines do fall short of their intended mark.
There are more ways in which How Not to Die Alone is not perfect. Andrew has a Dark Secret that torments him throughout the book, and it slightly cheapens his struggle by suggesting that there’s something “wrong” with him because of a trauma he suffered in his past. Peggy comes dangerously close to fitting the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, especially early on when her exuberance makes her a foil to Andrew’s quiet and unchanging personality. However, as the story progresses and their relationship develops, Peggy grows into a more rounded character with her own motivations and challenges.
It’s hard to call How Not to Die a romantic comedy. It’s funny, but it’s also an examination of quiet despair. It’s romantic, but really maybe it’s not. Or maybe it is. Or is it, really?
For all its faults, How Not to Die Alone is ultimately an entertaining novel with memorable characters and effortlessly engrossing prose. Read it. You’ll enjoy it.
How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper will soon be available at Fully Booked branches. Email us to request for a copy.
Jed is one of the co-founders of Popsicle Games, a game development studio based in the Philippines. He has worked as an animator, web designer, and college instructor, but he continues to dream of writing for a living. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @jrevita.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]