Stand Up, Ernie Baxter: You're Dead

Adam Voith (TNI Books)

First things first: Stand Up, Ernie Baxter: You're Dead gets big points because it has pictures. And they're not crappy diagrams or photos, but cartoons--yes, yes, cartoons! The pictures in Ernie Baxter are so rad that there should be some new law that makes it illegal for any book to not have cartoons included throughout.

But secondary things second, I guess, and the secondary things about Seattle writer Adam Voith's novel are less complimentary. Ernie Baxter has a really clever concept, and it flirts with transcendentalism and heartbreak and the nature of Heaven, but it also suffers from an uneven style and a plot that's about as suspenseful as an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

The story opens, fittingly, with Ernie Baxter. Ernie's dead, and doing a first-person narrative from Heaven, where he watches people react to his death. All of Baxter's monologues are great, and there's some cool stuff about the deceitfulness of memory, but that's all over by the end of the first chapter (the two best paragraphs in the whole book are excerpted on the back cover). Back on earth, Kyra, Ernie's estranged high school girlfriend, goes through Ernie's laptop, trying to find out who he was before he died. Turns out that there are a whole lot of standup comedy routines on the hard drive, and that Ernie had some kind of secret stand up comedy life that he didn't bother telling anybody about. So then of course Kyra falls in love with Ernie, giggles at his posthumously charming comedy, and learns a whole mess of Life Lessons.

Voith's style is somehow both simple and heavy-handed, and his focus is so Ernie/Kyra-centric that the book's other characters are either as caricatured as a Bond villain or just kind of... there. Then Voith throws in a twist ending--and granted, the twist is genuinely surprising, but maybe that's because it really doesn't make any sense at all in the context of the book.

But still--it's got pictures! Ernie's routines, drawn by artist Mike Lowery, are smart and original, and both funny and touching--if only the rest of the book would've followed suit. ERIK HENRIKSEN

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