Love and Other Near-Death Experiences
by Mil Millington
(Villard, $13.95, R) ISBN 0-8129-7348-8
****
“Hello.  My name is Robert, and I haven’t been dead for sixty-three days now.”  With an opening line like that, how can you go wrong?  British author Mil Millington’s third novel is a delightful find for fans of Nick Hornby and sarcastic British humor.  Even better, it suggests that even a cynical woman with a depressive personality can find true love.   

Two months ago, Rob Garland had an appointment to interview a musician at a local pub for his late-night jazz radio show.  However, due to a series of coincidences that involved a crowded hot dog vendor truck and a set of cheap towels, Rob was not in the pub when it was hit by an truck and collapsed, killing everyone inside.  Now, wondering how he made the series of choices that led to his untimely state of being alive, he finds himself completely paralyzed by simple decisions.  He asked his girlfriend Jo to marry him soon after he cheated death but mundane choices – bath or shower? gold or silver lettering on the wedding place cards? coffee or tea? – leave him sweating and immobile.  Every small choice feels like a matter of life and death.  

When Rob has a major freak-out on his radio show, Jo gives him a kindly ultimatum: find a way to get over his strange inertia or their relationship is doomed.  Through the radio show, Rob meets other individuals who have also been spared death due to seemingly random choices.  But the story takes a sinister turn when it becomes apparent that someone isn’t pleased that Rob is still alive, and plans to rectify that oversight.   

The first notable thing about Love and Other Near-Death Experiences is that it is screamingly funny in the most delightfully sardonic way.  For example here is Rob musing on the fateful hot dog truck that started the whole episode:  

I’m very fond of the hot dogs you get from those mobile street stalls.  I regard them as part food, part heroic trial of one’s mental toughness.  The task is to focus only on how great they taste: exclude the weak, cowardly thoughts about their having been sold to you by someone you’d probably be uncomfortable sitting next to on a train, or that the “meat” in them was surely gathered by blasting the most stubbornly adhesive matter from the bones of animals using high-powered water jets, jets wielded, moreover, by the caliber of individual who’d want to do that for a living.  It’s a test of will.   

That may be a little graphic, but then this book is not for readers looking for hearts and flowers.   

The secondary characters, including Rob’s ambitious, fruit-mangling boss and a cheerfully slow-witted American provide more opportunities for hilarious interactions.  The plot gets away from Millington about halfway through the book, when things go from enjoyably bizarre to incredulously stupid.  But fortunately, along with the wit, the novel features a unique love story.  I won’t spoil the fun by identifying the object of Rob’s affection, but I will note that the author’s website is entitled Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About.  If you don’t mind the fact that the endearments spilling from the lips of Rob’s true love include “simplistic arsehole,” “moronic prick” and (simple yet always effective), “twat,” you might appreciate the incongruous sweetness of the confused but earnest Rob seeing the appeal in a prickly, intelligent, cynical and clinically depressed woman.  On behalf of all of us anti-Little Miss Sunshines, thank you Rob!  

Millington quietly slips in the moral at the book’s conclusion without resorting to lecturing or moralizing as Rob finally gets past his existential panic and realizes that life is meant to be savored.  But don’t get too gooey-eyed and sentimental, or you’ll miss some of book’s best laughs.  Romance readers who don’t mind unconventional love stories delivered with biting wit will thoroughly enjoy Love and Other Near-Death Experiences.  

--Susan Scribner


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