Kenboski & Seidenverg Books

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By Derek McFadden

IR Rating:
Easy to follow and with a strong emotional core, WHAT DEATH TAUGHT TERRENCE will surprise or enlighten few, but offers a moving portrait of family, hope, and life with chronic illness.

When Terrence meets God, the latter explains that they’ve already made a deal: Terrence’s place in the afterlife is contingent not only on what he did, but on what he learned in life. Derek McFadden’s WHAT DEATH TAUGHT TERRENCE follows the pair through time and memory to unravel the secret that will grant the protagonist his hard-earned repose.

Terrence is dead, to begin with, and in short order he’s whisked away to meet his eventual fate. In the afterlife, God explains that they’ve met before and made a deal: Terry would accept a life of bitter challenges – including a long battle with cerebral palsy – to ensure that he learned the purpose of his own existence. Ultimately, these lessons are fairly straightforward, but the meat of the narrative follows Terry and God from the lives of Terry’s parents to those of his children, through a string of difficult personal relationships, some scenes of shocking violence, families both broken and whole, and elusive moments of understanding and growth.

The setup is familiar and unfolds in satisfying modular units: discussions with God, a view of a past event (sometimes from Terry’s own past perspective, sometimes that of another), further discussion; short poetic interludes between. The minimal formal variation (along with the understood conventions of the “recently-dead looking back on life” story) is actually one of the stronger textual choices, providing the reader a clear framework while developing a broad cast of characters across several decades of history. The shifts of time, place, and perspective could be confusing without sufficient focus, but WHAT DEATH TAUGHT TERRENCE keeps them all in line. Like the structure, the prose is solid and clear. There are some unresolved editing issues (particularly with homophones: “here, here” for “hear, hear;” “formerly” for “formally;” “creek” for creak”), but they’re few and far between, and don’t meaningfully diminish the impression of care and control which the text evinces overall.

Some cracks begin to show in the deployment of language for character. Terry (the primary narrator) and nearly every other character all use the same linguistic register; the cast here is so diverse that the flatness of the presentation becomes impossible to ignore. Terry alone appears throughout his childhood and adult life, but his speech hardly evolves; adult characters of different backgrounds speaking in the ‘90s don’t sound too different from teens in the 2040s; two characters on a date ask pointed questions of each other in the same style that Terry and God use with each other. Although the characters themselves are well-imagined and well-drawn, this still reads as a missed opportunity to elevate the narrative.

This linguistic homogeneity, along with the didactic structure, also prevents the narrative from connecting as powerfully as it could. The characters are well-rounded, but they jump at the chance to bluntly describe their interior lives. The result is an occasional impression that this is not literature but literary analysis: there is frequent explicit discussion of characters’ beliefs and motivations, or the meaning of a given event, which can rob the reader of any surprise or accomplishment in developing understanding, rather than simply being fed it. This isn’t a failing of this work, but a problem with didactic literature as a whole; at the same time, readers might have actually learned (or at least felt) more from the narrative if given the chance to sift subtext from text on their own.

~Dan Accardi for IndieReader