My interest was piqued when Michael Essington, a/k/a Mike E. over at the blog Strange Reaction (if you're not a regular reader, fix that error immediately!), sent me an email a couple months back asking if he could use one of my quotes in his new book. New book? After taking a few moments to kick the writer inside of me ("Other people are writing books. Get off yer bum and write something fer crissakes, wouldja?!?") I found myself really looking forward to reading Mike's work. The record reviews he writes and the anecdotes he shares on the blog are always enjoyable, and often leave you wanting to hear more. His new book, Last One to Die, available now through Create Space, does not disappoint.
In essence, Last One to Die is a compendium of short stories, some revised and revisited pieces he has shared online or in his past column for Flipside, organized under the vast umbrellas of Friends & Family, Life, Music and Inspiration. Each anecdote stands completely on its own, and many could fit equally well under any of his four categories, yet when taken as a group they provide a loose biography of a bit of a misfit kid growing up in southern California and finding Punk Rock to be the perfect soundtrack as he goes about the task of trying to figure out Life.
Mike is maybe a year older than I, so I can very easily relate to many of the background details here: the music, the pop culture references, etc., are of my time. But what makes Mike's writing work is that the details aren't the thing, the gut feeling is. His writing is visceral, and anyone who has lived past the age of 25 can relate to these tales. We've all had the idiotic friends, the family fights, the relationships we wax nostalgic over, the decisions we wish we could take back, the celebrations and successes, and the tough lessons to learn. His story is everyone's story: what the hell are we doing here anyway?
The short pieces he writes combine with his naturally conversational style to make you feel like you're sitting with an old friend trading stories that you've both heard a thousand times over, but you want to hear again anyway. Others might use traditional book-review words like "stark," "unflinching," or "no punches pulled" to describe Mike's tone and outlook; I think "realistic" is a better choice. No, he doesn't dress up the grittier aspects of his tales to make them more palatable, nor does he apologize for who he was in his youth or who he is now. But then again, when you're sitting with your friend trading stories, you know that you'll call bullshit on each other if you try to make yourself look better than you were. I never got the sense while reading that I'd be calling bullshit on any of Mike's tales.
The only complaint I have, and it's not a large one, is technical. Mike's book could really use a proofreader in spots. There are occasional misplaced commas, run-on sentences, unidentified antecedents and vague phrasings that turn up throughout, and of course my OCD spotted everyone of them. At the same time, those things may well have been intentional: again, there is a very conversational feel here, and standing on ceremony is not required for good conversation.
At just over 200 pages, Last One to Die is a relatively quick read, but a highly recommended one. Mike's experiences as an amateur boxer, singer (and rapper of sorts, unintentionally), young Punk Rock kid and older husband and father make excellent fodder for stories that will, in turns, make you laugh, piss you off, cause you to shake your head, and bring to mind your own tales.
Again, Last One to Die is available at Create Space. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up.