The Dead Don’t Sleep, by Steven Max Russo

Short Take: The ghosts of the past are the REALLY terrifying ones.

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(*Note – I received a copy of this book for review.*)

It’s Halloween, y’all, and I am PUMPED to take the nerdling out tonight, despite a forecast calling for cold, rain, and possibly snow. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not usually an outdoor person even when the weather is ideal, but, well, there is candy involved, and I will do a lot of things outside my comfort zone for a pile of candy.

No, not that, you sickos.

ANYWAY.

This is the time of year when most reviewers are jumping on the supernatural horror train, but let’s be honest here – I read that stuff all the time, so while it would probably be appropriate to post a review of something demonic, it’s a little too on the nose for me. So instead, I’m going to talk about the scariest monsters of all: human ones who not only enjoy killing, but have been trained to do it very, very well.

When Bill Thompson’s elderly Uncle Frank loses his wife of forty-five years, Bill does what any loving nephew would do. He invites Frank to take a break from his houseful of memories and never-ending stream of well-meaning casserole-bearing neighbors in Maine to come and visit Bill and his family in New Jersey for a few days. It’s a nice-enough visit (given the reason), but when they go to a firing range for a few hours of target practice, Frank runs into a fellow Vietnam vet with whom he shares a horrific history.

Although both men are now in their seventies, Jasper recognizes Frank immediately, and just as quickly, decides to get revenge for what Frank did fifty years ago. 

Now, you might think this would play out like Grumpy Old Men, but you would be very, very wrong. Because Frank and Jasper were both part of a very deadly, very secret unit back then. So when Jasper rounds up a couple of the other “All-Stars” (what they called themselves in Vietnam) and goes on a little hunting trip to Maine, what ensues is not funny AT ALL. 

This is where I usually give a hilarious summary of my feelings on a book, but I’m going to break in with a serious bit of personal info for a minute. My father was a Vietnam vet (RIP Pappy), and I think that Mr. Russo did a spot-on job of describing how vets shove their experiences down in order to relate to civilians. I grew up hearing funny stories of pranks and drunken shenanigans and one particular family legend involving a ring he bought for my mom getting dropped through a fence, and a skinny Vietnamese kid being bribed to climb through and get it. To hear dad tell it, the war was one big party, and I loved, loved LOVED that Frank was the same way. I found myself nodding along with his thoughts more than once, and chuckling at my own memories right along with Bill’s.

So on that deep character and relationship level, The Dead Don’t Sleep works perfectly. And as an action-y cat & mouse tale with lots of guns going boom and bad guys doing bad things, it’s definitely fun. 

But the pacing was just a little bit off. Scenes of characters getting ready for something exciting seemed to linger just a few beats too long, and to someone like me who doesn’t know an M-16 from an AK-47, the many, many gun descriptions were wasted space. Mossberg and Fox and Glock probably mean something to a lot of readers, but it was all gibberish to this pacifist nerd.

Another thing that bugged me was that we have four guys in their 70’s, a couple of which are heavy drinkers with lousy diets, and they are all soldiering around the forest in winter like it ain’t no thing. Nobody has arthritis or a bad knee? No blood pressure stuff or even acid reflux? No breaking a hip while diving behind a tree? 

Finally, The Dead Don’t Sleep is well-written, but it has a slightly dated, hyper-macho-80’s-action-movie vibe. Frank is compared to Rambo a few times, and it’s supposed to be a compliment, but Dad HATED those movies – something about a draft-dodger pretending to be a war hero rubbed him wrong. It cheapens Frank as a character, making him less human, and more alpha-male fantasy. 

But for all its flaws, I couldn’t put it down. There’s something compelling about the everlasting invisible wounds of war, and I don’t think enough people appreciate the courage it takes for combat veterans to live an ordinary life, to deal with things like mortgage payments and washing dishes when they feel like they’ve lost part of their soul. 

And I really, really need to start jogging or something, yikes.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a huge pile of candy, I’ll start working out tomorrow. Or maybe the next day. Happy Halloween!!!!)

fourhappyneurons

 

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