Book Review: The Pallbearers’ Club by Paul Tremblay
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: HarperAudio (July 5, 2022)
Length: 10 hrs and 46 mins
Narrators: Graham Halstead, Xe Sands, Elizabeth Wiley
Oh, how to describe The Pallbearers’ Club? Definitely not your conventional novel for sure, and word of advice? Everyone should be aware of its unique and rather peculiar narrative format before they commit to reading it. In the print version, the text is presented as a typed manuscript of a memoir written by “author” Art Barbara (a pseudonym, we’re told), with annotations in the margins of the page written by his “beta reader”, a woman he identifies simply as Mercy.
Depending on the type of reader you are, you might find this idiosyncrasy totally awesome or totally annoying and distracting (which appears to be a common complaint, judging from the reviews), but I wouldn’t know. I was fortunate to have received the audiobook edition for review, which actually worked extremely well due to having two different narrators taking on the separate roles. Graham Halstead read the main narrative text as Art, while Xe Sands took on the role of Mercy, jumping in whenever she had a comment. The audio format made the interaction between the two characters feel very realistic and natural, so I didn’t suffer the start-stop effect of having to constantly switch between text and notes like with the print book, since all the hard work done for me.
As for what The Pallbearers’ Club is about, well, that’s pretty complicated too. Since this novel is written as his memoir, Art begins his tale in the late 1980s when he was a seventeen-year-old high school outcast who had horrible scoliosis, loved listening to hair metal bands, and desperately needed extracurriculars for his resume so he could get into his college of choice and as far away as possible from his miserable little hometown. He decides the best way to go about this is to start his own club, and begins recruiting other volunteers to serve the community with him as pallbearers at the local funeral home for people who died without any family and friends.
Needless to say, it did not take off. But through the Pallbearers’ Club, our protagonist did manage to make one new friend. Mercy was everything Art was not—quirky, confident, and cool. A student at the community college, she found out about the club through one of his posted flyers, and seemed to love everything about the idea. It also gave her the chance to take pictures of corpses, which she did with her trusty Polaroid camera that never seemed to leave her side. Mercy was into a lot of strange things—sometimes disturbing, scary things—but Art is content not to ask too many questions, not wanting to do anything that might drive his new friend away. As their bizarre relationship continues into Art’s adulthood though, he begins to wonder if Mercy might be more than she purported to be. Writing this memoir, he tries to make sense of all the unexplainable things he’s seen and the uncanny interactions they’ve had.
Every time I say I’m done with Paul Tremblay, he comes out with another book that just sounds so crazy good and totally out there that I’m tempted to pick it up, but then I read it and it ends up being super weird or super meh, and I find I’m right back where I started again.
Thing is though, his books aren’t bad. It’s just A Head Full of Ghosts was the first book I ever read by him, and to put it bluntly, nothing he’s written since has come even close to being as amazing or frightening for me. That’s the most frustrating part, and I’m afraid the vicious cycle described above will forever be repeating itself as I doggedly keep reading him hoping I’ll get that same magic again, which is admittedly feeling less and less likely with each passing novel.
So, that’s sort of where I’m at with The Pallbearers’ Club. The book starts off really great, with fantastic rapport between the two main characters, both of whom you just want to get to know better. However, things devolve as Tremblay tries too hard to be meta and clever and only succeeds in making the story feel more convoluted and pretentious. By the halfway point, I wasn’t having much fun anymore and was simply going through the motions to finish the book.
I was also underwhelmed by the ending and the novel as a whole. The publisher description didn’t sell the book very accurately, as the story’s tone was more literary experimental fiction than horror, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was both expecting something different and in the mood for something else, thus explaining my lukewarm rating. Hard to say if I’ll keep reading the author after this, falling back into that old cycle, but I suppose it will simply depend on what his next book will be about (as always).