Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zenter

Spoiler Alert: I tried very hard not to give away too much, but my review does contain some small details about novel’s plot. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge when the providing a synopsis ends and spoilers begin. If you want to read the book knowing absolutely nothing beforehand, wait until after you’ve finished before reading this review.

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I became a huge fan of Jeff Zenter after reading his first book, The Serpent King. I approached this book hoping it would be ever bit as fulfilling as the first, and it did not disappoint.

Goodbye Days follows Carver Briggs, the main character who sent a text to his friend Mars while he was driving. This act may or may not have lead to Mars crashing his car, killing himself and his two passengers, Carver’s other friends. Following the funerals, Carver begins to hold a series of “Goodbye Days”, a day for each of his departed friends, where he spends time with their parents and loved ones. The intent is that they will spend the day doing things that the departed enjoyed and tell stories about them. It gives them a chance to say goodbye and celebrate their loved ones’ lives.

Carver has to deal with coming to terms with the death of his three friends and his possible role to play in the tragedy. We see how various friends and family members of the deceased teenagers deal with their grief, their varying reactions to Carver’s possible role in the deaths, and how losing a loved one effects their lives as well.

This is not light reading; however, it is not dark for the sake of being dark. Zenter is good at evoking the emotions that company depression and guilt, but he also does something much harder: he depicts the slow, jagged, uneven journey of moving through those motions to something that might be considered finding peace. I hesitate to go into too much detail for fear of dropping a spoiler, but will I’ll say that there is an emotional payoff to reading this novel. You’ll come away feeling satisfied and renewed.

Here’s a few things that stood out to me as I read:

1) The Humor. I know I said it was a dark novel, and it is. But Zenter knows how to balance the heavier themes with truly fulfilling comedy. I straight laughed out loud while reading this novel. What’s more delightful, the humor occurs amongst the interactions of the characters. Not only does this deepen the characterization, but it gives the reader this warm and fuzzy feelings you get when you see people who care about each other cracking inside jokes. At the risk of sounding prudish, most of the humor we find in our current tv shows, books, and social media feeds is spiteful in nature. It’s refreshing to see a piece of work that captures the feeling of close friends cracking well meaning, albeit still immature, jokes.

2) The South. I grew up in a small town in Western North Carolina. Both of Zenter’s books capture the nuances of living in the American south. The small town feel, the voice he gives to one of the character’s “Nana”, driving into a bigger town to go to the mall, the way religion is tied to everything, always hanging in the background. Zenter evokes this perfectly. His character’s are southern without being stereotypes.

3) Religion. It’s probably an unavoidable topic when writing southern fiction, even if your writing about today’s south, but the way Goodbye Days handles religion was refreshing. Carver beings to question his religion and belief in the afterlife for the first time in his life following the deaths. We see how several of the characters use religion, in both good and bad ways, in response to the deaths of their loved ones. The novel doesn’t beat you over the head with the topic. Rather, it gently plays with religion’s role in dealing with these life events. In some ways, it reminds me of Madeleine L’engle’s work. The presence of religion in the novel is not intended to convert, but to question.

4) Stories. The central theme of Goodbye Days is stories. How stories can help us heal after a terrible loss. How the stories we construct about someone will always leave out information we don’t know. How sharing stories with one another can be an act of fellowship, of repair. How stories can help us better understand our own feelings about something. Lately, we’ve heard a lot about “alternative facts”. This is a form of the misuse of story, of taking a narrative and twisting it to control, hurt, and gain power. This is what we talk about when we use the word story as a synonym of lying. But not all stories are lies. Goodbye Days is about the better types of stories, stories that heal, stories as an act of fellowship, stories as an act of hope.

Goodbye Days was another wonderful novel by Jeff Zenter. I just read on Goodreads that his third book now has a title, TV 6. It’s about two high school aged friends who host a “creature feature” show on their local cable channel. Can I get that now, please?

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