In Pete Nelson‘s I Thought You Were Dead, Paul Gustavson’s life has truly fallen apart. He is struggling to write his latest “For Morons” book, his wife has left him, his sometime girlfriend leaves no doubt that she is considering her options with another man, he’s impotent, and his circle of friends are all a group of men who drink way too much (this includes Paul). The only thing Paul has going for him is his dog, Stella, whose steady ways, thoughtful questions, and wise insights are the only thing that keep Paul on any kind of worthwhile path at all. When Paul’s father suffers from a debilitating stroke and is left bedridden, the only way the family can communicate with him is through IM, and Paul is the designated contact person. While struggling to open up a dialogue with his father, Paul’s world slowly begins to change.
This novel was gripping in a very different way. I have had issues in the past with well-written books that are almost too realistic and painful to read. Nelson’s novel flirted with being one of those books for me. His characters and their situations are incredibly well-drawn. Paul’s attitude toward himself and his intimacy issues were both a bit depressing and frustrating to watch, but no matter how much I thought I was finished with reading the novel (and had put it aside), something would make me pick it back up again. I would read, be absorbed for a few chapters but so exasperated by Paul that I would decide to put it away, and then I’d be back again for more. It truly would not let go.
While vexation mixed with unrelenting curiosity are not the normal pattern that I like to follow in my reading, I am glad that I read this one through to the end. Paul’s life is definitely more than a little unsettling because he seems unhappy in ways that maybe many are. The presence of Stella provides enough levity and facilitates just enough compassion for Paul that I had no choice but to continue reading. There is something very compelling about this novel and its characters.
The book is wonderfully thoughtful and realistic in its portrayal of family interactions, and the struggle to create a personal identity and viable lifestyle. Through conversation with his father and his dog, Paul is finally able to begin confronting some of the troubles that have hampered him. Animal lovers especially will be amused by his conversations with Stella, and may wonder at their origins. I admit that talking animals usually annoy me in books, and at times I wondered about the true nature of Stella, but far from hurting, she tied together this moving novel about the intricacy of relationships between self and family. Recommended.