I know, it’s not exactly a timely review of Rio Youers’ Westlake Soul. If you want timely, you can always try Publisher’s Weekly. Wait, no, bad idea. Stay here. Read my review of a novel that hurt more than the last time I boxed. Then, and only then, are you free to go read about new books on PW.
The boxing comparison is not an idle one. Reading Mr. Youers’ book honestly evoked memories of my last sparring session. In both cases friends and colleagues told me I would be in for a world of hurt. In both cases I brushed off the warnings. Now, two words come to mind as I reflect on Westlake Soul: body blow.
Body blows make it hard to breathe. They make a person’s body desperate to breathe in as air is being forced out. Unlike in physics, the two opposing forces don’t cancel out. Instead, they leave a person off-balance, stunned, and struggling for purchase. That’s what it is like to read Westlake Soul. It’s a series of perfectly timed and precisely measured body blows. All of these strikes left this extraordinarily cynical – not to mention grouchy – critic reeling in their wake.
Packed within the novel’s relatively modest word count is a world’s worth of ideas on disabilities, metaphysics, justice, and surfing. The eponymous character, Westlake Soul, is the smartest man on the Earth, capable of reading minds (after a fashion), astral projection, and talking to dogs. The last bit might sound trivial, but there’s nothing in the world to drive home the sadness of a scene like a dog whose dialogue is reminiscent of Jeff Bridges as “The Dude” being morose about Westlake Soul’s pending doom; for the story of Westlake Soul is that of the final days of a man in a persistent vegetative state.
Unpacking everything that Rio Youers poured into this tragic figure, would likely take a few thousand words more than the average person’s attention span. Since I think I’ve driven home the book’s evocative strength, I’ll devote the balance of this review to a theme this novel explores rather brilliantly: frailty.
A thread woven through the entirety of the narrative is the notion that life is cheap, fragile, and wonderful. In the turn of a page Westlake goes from a surfing prodigy to a man incapable of consistently blinking under his own power. Where Westlake demonstrates the physical nature of frailty, his parents are a study in mental fragility.
While Westlake Soul doesn’t present itself as an overtly political novel, the questions it asks are politically charged. I dare say they’ve become even more charged since the novel’s original publication in 2012. Life and death is easy as a binary, but what happens when said definition falls on spectrum? Westlake is very much alive, even if his astral projections are nothing more than the product of his imagination. To the outside world, his life-status is a matter of debate and hand-wringing. The character is a study into what I imagine are the questions every family has to ask themselves when they are confronted with long-term care situation. Questions this writer hopes will remain firmly in the realm of fiction apropos of his life and loved ones.
Only through hubris and chance do we imagine themselves as titans. This is the idea Westlake Soul singed into my thoughts. Perhaps the lesson at hand is that Dr. Quietus, the “supervillain” Westlake Soul presents as the counterpoint to Westlake as Charles Xavier meets Stephen Hawking, a character whose name is derived from the Latin for “finishing stroke,” will come for us all.
Westlake Soul hurts like a dropkick to the stomach. However, I would gladly read it again if only to better understand myself in that moment. Much like title character, Westlake Soul is a novel that makes a person turn inward to examine themselves. It is a Voight-Kampff test: a measure of a reader’s ability to plumb the depths of their own memories and empathize with a character who is both imaginary and an avatar for every person with a life-altering disability. To call the novel powerful, is to commit a most grievous sin of understatement.