I have often read stories where everlasting life is the sought after goal of the villain, the hero’s reward or the tragic burden of the emotionally vulnerable vampire. I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything quite like Gene Doucette’s Immortal, where living forever is just sort of a hassle. Part of the problem with immortality is expected, as the the narrator, known as Adam through most of the novel, is forced to watch the people around him grow old and die. There are other less conventional takes on the difficulties Adam faces, though. He must live as a nomad, because the longer he is in one place, the more likely it is that his neighbors will notice that he doesn’t age. Adam has learned from experience that people tend to respond badly to the unusual, like an immortal man, often with pitchforks and torches. Adam also has to deal with more than the growth and death of the individuals around him; he must endure changing societies and the advance of civilization. In the modern world, where much of the novel takes place, this means falsifying any number of documents, as he existed long before Social Security numbers or birth certificates. Interestingly, there are also problems that are once removed from Adam’s ageless existence.
Because he is a wanderer who outlives everyone he meets, he is lonely. But because he’s lonely, he also drinks far too much, sometimes spending entire decades in a booze-filled haze. This problem is particular to the way Adam handles his loneliness — another character might fall into sexual depravity or ascetic withdrawal from the world, or just about anything else. All of these qualities together make Doucette’s Adam a man who is impossibly old, but still obviously and deliberately a man.
From this premise, along with the author’s easy command of prose, I was quickly drawn into the novel. The only minor snag in my initial enjoyment was the narrator’s voice. I don’t often care for the kind of snarky, drunken wit that Adam employs at the outset of the novel. In Immortal, though, I found that the humor was balanced, giving way to Adam’s doubts and self-examination, which enabled me to connect with the character.
Doucette should also be commended on the skill with which the threads of his narrative are interwoven. The narrative moves back and forth from the present day to pieces of Adam’s long history, interspersed with moments from a point toward the end of the novel when Adam has been taken prisoner under mysterious circumstances. At no point in all of this hopping through time is it unclear for the reader which part of Adam’s story is being told. I enjoyed the historical portions of the novel, particularly the action sequences. Though it’s clear that Adam will survive — since he can’t be telling the story in the 21st century if he died in the 17th — these scenes are intense and compelling. I also liked the fact that when Adam prevails, it is through ingenuity and endurance (and sometimes cowardice) rather than the heroism one expects from these tales from antiquity. As I said, the reader knows Adam will live through each of the trials he comes up against in the past.
When the plot reaches the point when Adam is imprisoned, however, there is a feeling of having caught up to Adam’s present moment, which grants the close of the novel an added element of danger. From that moment on, the reader is reminded of how often Adam stressed that while he doesn’t age or get sick, he isn’t invulnerable. He can be wounded. He can die.
Overall, Immortal is a great debut novel from an author I look forward to reading more from in the future. It’s an easy read, a fun read, and it reminds the reader that men and women, no matter where they are in the world, no matter when they are in history, are all alike. We all want the same things, we are all vulnerable in the same ways and in the end, all we have are each other.
*The review originally appeared on Best Damn Creative Writing Blog.*