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The Afterlife
Gary Soto
Harcourt, 168 pages

The Afterlife
Gary Soto
Gary Soto, born in 1952 and raised in Fresno California, is the author of ten poetry collections for adults, most notably New and Selected Poems, a 1995 finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the National Book Award. His poems have appeared in many literary magazines, including The Nation, Plouqhshares, The Iowa Review, Ontario Review and most frequently Poetry, which has honored him with the Bess Hokin Prize and the Levinson Award and by featuring him in Poets in Person. He is one of the youngest poets to appear in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

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A review by Trent Walters

Gary Soto's new young adult novel, The Afterlife, is similar to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones but for adolescent boys and somewhat better written. Gary Soto is well known in the poetry world for his New and Selected Poems becoming a finalist for the National Book Award. Poetry fans will recognize that his clear and simple style has carried over into his young adult novel -- a detail others might overlook as the default style of young adult novels. But this distinction will be elaborated upon later.

Chuy is an average kid -- average-looking and average at athletics -- from the poorer district of L.A. He plays basketball but only plays when their team is way ahead or way behind. We meet him in the restroom of Club Estrella, spiffing up for his date. Chuy tells a stranger in yellow shoes that Chuy likes the shoes. The guy doesn't much care for the remark. So he stabs Chuy, and Chuy dies.

Chuy is now a ghost slowly disappearing and is tossed by the wind. The latter becomes an important issue structurally, though not at first. Chuy is learning what has happened to him and who he now is and what he can now do as a ghost. This is what distinguishes Soto's novel from that of Sebold's. Chuy is curious about the afterlife and explores it like an intrepid explorer. Sebold's narrator largely does nothing of the sort. Most of her time is spent watching what's happening in the real world that we wonder how necessary the supernatural element is to the story. One might extrapolate that this is what all science fiction does and elucidate a good reason why fantasy can be labeled as science fiction since humans have curiosity and are willing to investigate what's happening in the world. It is a scientific curiosity that asks questions: where am I, who are these people, how do these things work. And so Soto the respected poet has now become a genre writer. Oh, the ignominy!

Moreover, Soto employs his skill as a poet to render not only powerful prose but also simple prose that might surprise a few fans of style that literary has multiple styles. In fact, certain cadre of the literary ilk might scoff the style of, say, the New Weird as too opulent, too uncommon man, too elitist (of course, by scoffing and saying their way is the only way, the literary ilk become elitist too. So more power to the New Weird! Everyone finds their own path). Here, Soto captures a moment so beautifully simple:

"[Oakland Raiders fans outside the stadium] stomped their shoes and boots when they dipped a tortilla chip in salsa and couldn't handle the fiery taste. I couldn't catch the footballs that were tossed around the parking lot, and the dudes playing couldn't catch them, either."
Not exactly the purple prose the average joe thinks of when he thinks of poetry, eh?

For those more familiar with true poetic effects, how about this doozy: "The gravity of my new status as a ghost began to sink in as I hovered above the roof." Ha! These effects added more depth at the beginning, but they didn't really pan out. Soto makes reference to Faust and Inferno but to no narrative end (yes, yes, I know, it's the "afterlife" but I mean more integrally). These references and an inquiry into purpose of the afterlife might have given the needed story structure.

The story bogs down in the middle under said lack of structure: Chuy is blown by the wind, to and fro, often bumping into his family or bumping, a little too often for coincidental comfort, into his murderer with mixed feelings: sometimes angry, sometimes curious, sometimes pitying, sometimes a downright unreliable narrator, for (assuming the narrator weren't mocking his murderer's yellow shoes) why else does Chuy suddenly hate the shoes and call them "stupid" and then mock someone for using the same word a page later?

Luckily for the story, Chuy stumbles on another ghost, a "popular" high school girl who has killed herself and with whom Chuy falls in love. The girl's love finally gives Chuy purpose to forward the narrative, which brings up another question:

Is this really a young adult novel? I don't mean because it deals with sex and death and drugs. (Cautious parents beware: these days, though, by the time your kid's a young adult, I'm sure he already knows about them.) The narrator seems less like a kid from high school than a man reflecting back on youth. What boy introspects thus: "I would call [the Raiderette cheerleaders] 'sweet' or 'hot,' the vocabulary of a seventeen-year-old boy?"

The observations on age groups older than himself are generally those of an older man. You can point out one-in-a-million rare exceptions but these tend to be inculcated anyway, rather than thought out. Even if not, Chuy is supposed to be your average joe.

The novel is best read as a metaphor. A transformation from life to death becomes Gary Soto's guide for boys passing through a similar transformation into adulthood: drugs, murder, revenge, poverty, football, and love. Through this lens, The Afterlife is a potent success -- probably one of the most carefully written young adult books that I've read in a long while.

Copyright © 2004 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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