Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time! I include roundups from participating bloggers in my post every week.
A little over three years ago I decided to try my first Markus Zusak book. I had heard everyone and their grandmother go on about what an amazing accomplishment his later novel The Book Thief was, so naturally I walked right past that one in the bookstore and grabbed a copy of I am the Messenger. Will I never stop being so obstinate when it comes to hype? But in this case, though, I have to say I'm sort of glad I read this book first. It's just so freaking unique. And hilarious. And moving. And that is not to say that The Book Thiefisn't all those things and more. Because it is. And let it be known that I think it is a perfect piece of literature and I love it with every fiber of my bookish being. But today I want to talk about his earlier book. The one I read first. The one that introduced me to the wonder that is Markus Zusak's gift with the written word. And the one I think fewer people have read, which is a problem that must be rectified at once. Today, if possible! Originally published back in 2003 in Australia as The Messenger (a title I like almost as well), this remarkable novel has been the lucky recipient of several awesome covers as well as the Children's Book Council Book of the Year award (for older readers) in Australia and the Printz Honor here in the states. And I promise you two things. You have never read anything like it. And you do not want to miss it.
Ed Kennedy is the most underachieving 19-year-old cab driver you'll ever meet. He lives in a dump of an apartment with his atrociously lovable dog the Doorman, who is--among other things--a diehard coffee slurper. And Ed spends his days driving cabs and mooning over his friend Audrey, and his nights playing poker poorly with his best mates Marv, Ritchie, and Audrey. Then one day Ed does something unusual. He stops a bank robbery in progress and barely escapes with his life. A short while later, cards are delivered to him. Playing cards. All aces. One by one, they appear in his path. One by one, they change his life. For with each ace comes a message that needs to be delivered and Ed--poor, average, no expectations Ed--is the messenger. The messages drag him around the city, searching for their chosen recipients. Ed stumbles along in his role and receives a heady and shocking glimpse into the lives of the people living around him every day. Sometimes he's bringing comfort. Sometimes a warning. And sometimes he is the punisher. Finding it difficult to cope with the weight of his sudden, unwelcome responsibility, Ed turns to his longtime friends for support. But even they, after awhile, are unable to truly understand what he's going through. And Ed becomes inevitably obsessed with finding out who is sending the aces, who is behind the strange and prescient messages, and--most of all--why they've chosen him to be their messenger.
I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning finishing this book the first time. On the cold tiles of the bathroom floor I sat, knees drawn up to my chest, absolutely frozen with my sympathy for the characters and my need to know how it would all turn out. Zusak blew me away. It's just that the words were always right. A good story, great characters, it's not enough. The individual words have to be right. And not even just good words. The best ones for the job. Zusak has this talent in spades (no pun intended). A good early passage on a typical poker night with the gang:
"I'm telling you," Marv points his finger at Ritchie. "I did knock. I don't care what you say."And (because I can't help myself) a little bit later on, one of my favorite scenes:
"Did he knock?" Ritchie asks me.
"I can't remember."
She thinks a moment and shakes her head. Marv throws his hands in the air. He has to pick up four cards now. In Annoyance, that's the way it works. You get down to two cards and you knock. If you forget to knock before you put down that second-to-last card, you pick up four. Marv forgets to knock quite frequently.
He scowls as he picks up the cards, but secretly he'll always try to get away with it. It's part of the game.
We're at Audrey's place, on her balcony. It's dark but the floodlights are on, and people look up as they walk past the lot of town houses. It's a street around the corner from mine. A bit of a dive, but nice enough.
In the first hour of play, I look at Audrey and know that I'm in nervous love with her. Nervous because I don't know what to do sometimes. I don't know what to say. What can I tell her when I feel the hunger rise in me? How would she react? I think she's frustrated with me because I could have gone to university and now I just drive a cab. I've read Ulysses, for God's sake, and half the works of Shakespeare. But I'm still hopeless, useless, practically pointless. I can see she could never really see herself with me. Yet she's still done it with others who are pretty much the same. Sometimes I can't bring myself to think about it. Thinking about what they've done and how it feels and how she likes me too much to consider me.
Even though I know.
It isn't just sex I'd want from her.
I'd want to feel myself mold with her, just for a moment, if that's all I'm allowed.
She smiles at me when she wins a round, and I smile back.
Want me, I beg, but nothing comes.
"It's just . . . I wish it was easier, for me, you know?" I make a special point not to look at her. "I wish it was someone else who was chosen for this. Someone competent. If only I didn't stop that robbery. I wish I didn't have to go through with it all." It comes gushing out, with words like spilled milk. "And I wish it was me with you and not that other guy. I wish it was my own skin touching with yours . . ."As you can tell, I was really struck with Ed and Audrey's complicated and often painful, but always true, relationship. I love Ed. I love Audrey and Marv and Ritchie. And I freaking love the way the language wrapped itself around me and made me laugh and cry and gasp. This book isn't just a story. It's a comprehensive experience. I felt better the next morning. Like the world was brighter, more vivid. I inhaled this book, but it swallowed me. I imagine Mr. Zusak would be pleased with that result.
And there you have it.
Stupidity in its purest form.
"Oh, Ed." Audrey looks away. "Oh, Ed."
Our feet dangle.
I watch them, and I watch the jeans on Audrey's legs.
We only sit there now.
Audrey and me.
Squeezed in, between us.
She soon says, "You're my best friend, Ed."
You can kill a man with those words.
Just words and a girl.
Retro Friday Roundup
Book Harbinger reviews The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Chachic's Book Nook reviews A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith
Black and Blue Ink Review
bookshelves of doom review
Maw Books Blog Review
Novel Insights Review
Persnickety Snark Review
Savidge Reads Review