Gary Amdahl’s I Am Death collects two novellas, the crime story “I Am Death, or Bartleby the Monster (A Story of Chicago)” and “Peasants,” a tale of hostile office politics. The two novellas are strikingly different in setting and tone, allowing Amdahl to display a range of abilities as both a writer and a storyteller.
“I Am Death” is reluctantly narrated by Jack, a Chicago journalist, who declares at the onset: “this is a story I am compelled to report. I don’t want to, I’m tired of banging my head against the wall, no one I know is the least bit interested in cause anymore, effect is everything.” It is a statement that at first seems at odds with the story he relates, which begins when Jack is contacted by George Swanson, lawyer for the brutal mobster Frank Fini. The men commission Jack to write Fini’s biography, but Jack soon finds that Fini’s presence is as catatonic and reserved as the Melville character that lends his name to the novella’s title, the mobster preferring that Swanson speak for him on every topic.
Jack and Swanson are both sharply self-absorbed, an attribute that is a source of both introspection and delusion. Both are given to grand pronouncements and grander aspirations: Jack writes notes to himself ripe with self-predicating sentiments such as “am going to pieces in a calm and methodical way” while simultaneously convincing himself that this is the story that will finally take his career to the next level. Swanson too prefers speeches to open dialogue. He makes a variety of overreaching statements, such as when he compares his life in organized Chicago crime to Al Jolson’s days as a blackface singer, saying,
“Guy spends his whole life being someone else—but those were different times. My point is, if you can’t be who you are, you be whoever you can be, whoever your audience will let you be. They couldn’t be Jews so they put on blackface. See, this is George Swanson in mob face.”
The tension between Jack and Swanson is offset and reflected by Jack’s relationship with Henrique Friend, a driver for the city morgue and the subject of the newspaper article that originally brought Jack to Swanson’s attention. It is Henrique’s job to drive the van that picks up the city’s deceased and transports them to the morgue. Depressed with his work, he tries to kill himself only months before being interviewed by Jack, explaining that dealing with the dead makes him feel helpless: “like I’m late, I missed it, there’s nothing you can do. You figure out how to be here and you get used to it.” This last sentence is close to the heart of this novella, a single phrase that provides one way to judge these characters. On one side are those who have become part of this world, who have compromised themselves in order to be successful. On the other side are those who have not or cannot, and who will therefore be destroyed by their inability to live with the nature of their lives.
In “Peasants,” protagonist Walter Rasmussen is an up-and-coming employee at a publisher of guidebooks for the users of geographic information systems. His job is to come up with projects that can be made into books, on subjects such as “[linking] certain business opportunities in outer space and sustainable development practices on the ground.” As his own upward trajectory begins to level off, Rasmussen experiences a variety of professional and personal failures. Seemingly sabotaged by his boss, his co-workers, and his soon-to-be ex-wife, Rasmussen leaves behind the jovial camaraderie of his workplace for schemes to advance himself amid the crumbling ruins of his department until “a long and confusing dark age [falls] over not just the team and the company, but, at least from Rasmussen’s perspective, the entire world, as well as the whole of his life, past, present, and future.”
Rasmussen’s fall from grace begins slowly, and it takes him a long time to hit bottom. Eventually, he finds himself involved in a series of necessary, and perhaps life-saving, separations and severances, without which he would be forever trapped in the petty orbits of his fellow office workers.
If “Peasants” seems to be merely good, it is perhaps only because it is placed side by side with “I Am Death,” a truly masterful novella. I Am Death is a fine book and an excellent introduction to Amdahl’s work for anyone who missed his stunning debut in 2006’s Visigoth. At his best, he combines a deep thoughtfulness with compellingly athletic prose, creating a collection with both beauty and brawn to spare. Luckily, his best is a frequently occurring phenomenon, and we can only hope that there is more still to come.