There’s a mystery at the heart of Paul Guernsey’s American Ghost, but it’s not necessarily the obvious one. While the story of spirits, weed, Ouija boards, and a grumbling collaboration of a bunch of failed writers does concern itself with the mystery of who murdered the narrator and why, that question—and a cast of eccentric characters—mostly provides a loose framework to support an exploration of the author’s thoughts on the writing process. On one level, this is a funny comic fantasy about people trying to make sense of a crazy situation; on another, it’s a meta-narrative about how a book changes while it is being written. And still, there’s another layer of mystery: we’re never sure how much of what we’re reading is the invention of one of three unreliable narrators tweaking the narrative to their own benefit. All in all, it’s an incredibly charming novel about writing, the afterlife, and trying to move on in the here-and-now, even when you don’t know how to get from point A to point B.
Daniel “Thumb” Riviera was a college dropout with literary aspirations who became a small-time marijuana grower in the hopes of experiencing the darker side of life. Unfortunately, the darker side came in the form of a bullet to the back of the skull. But death isn’t the end of Thumb’s story: stuck haunting his ranch house in rural Maine, Thumb is forced to watch as his partners get involved with the terrifying Blood Eagle Motorcycle Club responsible for his murder, his girlfriend gets back with her meth cook ex-boyfriend, and his home is destroyed by a trio of “artists.” He’s also forced to investigate his own death under implied threat of Hell itself.
Between these stressors and the company of the few other spirits hanging around (none of whom are exactly sterling conversationalists) it seems Thumb’s afterlife is going to be an endless slog—until a chance encounter puts him in touch with Ben, a semi-literate young schlub who can communicate with Thumb through a Ouija board. With the help of this new friend and a cantankerous failed novelist by the name of Fred Muttkowski, Thumb starts dictating a book called American Ghost—transcribed by Ben and (heavily) rewritten by Fred—in the hopes he can somehow make sense of his afterlife.
Fairly early on in this relatively lighthearted supernatural slice-of-afterlife, Thumb makes it clear he isn’t exactly narrating his story directly, but communicating it via Ouija board shorthand to Ben, who writes it down and hands it over to Fred to type up into the full book. Suddenly the shaggy ghost story takes on a much weirder undercurrent: between the context-based shorthand (“TN” can mean multiple words), Ben’s hasty transcription, and Fred’s editing, the telling of Thumb’s life after death becomes ever so slightly suspect. When Thumb waxes poetic about the afterlife, how much of it is actually him? Were the Blood Eagles really founded by fans of e.e. cummings and Viking urban legends, or was that an invention? Guernsey plays with the very concept of the “unreliable narrator,” turning into the skid by revealing the artifice fairly early on, challenging us to come up our own interpretation of events.
Even without its metafictional conceit, American Ghost is an excellent read. Guernsey populates his version of suburban Maine with a bizarre cast of characters, from an atheist university professor who believes the afterlife is all a dream, to a fanged and face-tattooed biker with a weirdly extensive knowledge of culture and a flair for the dramatic. If that sounds sort of like literary convention (and it’s supposed to) Guernsey also gives his characters significant flaws and interesting motivations—Ben needs to help his younger siblings out of an abusive situation—that make them feel more human. Thumb isn’t above blackmailing the one person he can speak to just to get his way, Fred’s conning the other two, and Ben actually gives up on writing at one point in favor of playing video games. There’s also no owner’s manual to the afterlife; ghosts and humans alike have to puzzle it out for themselves, which adds a certain reality to things—living or dead, these are people trying to make their way the best they can, even if it means occasionally screwing over others. That’s life, after all. Or death. Whatever.