"The Pallbearers Club" Book Review

Written by Tony Jones

Published by Titan Books

the pallbearers club paul tremblay poster large

Written by Paul Tremblay
2022, 400 pages, Fiction
Released on 5th July 2022

Review:

Paul Tremblay has authored some outstanding novels, with A Head Full of Ghosts (2015), Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (2016) and Survivor Song (2020) amongst my personal favourites. One of his greatest strengths, beyond the sheer variety of his plotlines, is the clever ways in which he uses ambiguity. Was there really a possession in A Head Full of Ghosts or any supernatural shenanigans in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock? Much remains up for debate, providing the novels with an extra layer of intrigue and food for discussion. However, it could be argued that his habit of using ambiguity as a literary tool is taken to extremes in The Cabin at the End of the World (2018), which involves a possible apocalypse and too many unanswered questions. Although this novel picked up many great reviews, I found that in this case the vagueness is overplayed, detrimental to the plot and there is more of the same in this new novel.

Although Tremblay admirably changes direction in The Pallbearers Club and it is a lighter read than those already mentioned, with entertaining darkly comic touches, he once again turns to ambiguity in regard to the supernatural. To avoid spoilers I’m not going into any details, but ultimately I found this to be a weak link and the uncertainty surrounding the second main character, Mercy Brown, tiresome, repetitive and fails to add any level of suspense. Mercy does bring a funny and cynical opposing point of view to the overall story with her own anecdotes and observations, but I could not care less whether she was other-than-human or not, with this part of the story coming across as forced and failing to click.

I did love the nostalgic musical vibe of The Pallbearers Club, set at the tail-end of the eighties. Lead character Art Barbara spends his time listening to the middle-of-the-road rock band Def Leppard until Mercy Brown introduces him to the legendary hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü (who as it happens are about to split up). From that moment on, Art never listens to Def Leppard again and with Mercy’s help takes a deep dive into many great punk bands of that era, including Ramones, Minutemen, The Slits, The Damned, Dead Kennedys, Buzzcocks, Mission of Burma and Bad Brains. This is my musical scene and have seen many of the bands name-checked in the flesh and so thoroughly enjoyed Art’s journey from introverted teenage nerd to living and breathing music. Tremblay mentions in the endnotes that there is a little bit of himself in Art (I was not surprised) and so I doff my cap at his supremely good taste in music. Even better, the majority of chapters are named after Hüsker Dü songs, so if you have never heard them and you enjoy loud fast aggressive music, check them out.

The Pallbearers’ Club is presented as a memoir written by Art Barbara looking back upon his life and he has sent the manuscript to his old friend Mercy Brown for comments. She contradicts much of his version of events, presents a new perspective, changes things, and challenges him whilst having her own biases, as the pair have had a long and very toxic on/off friendship which lies at the core of the plot. At various times it is implied the text we are reading is fiction rather than a memoir and since Art is obviously an unreliable narrator, it is tricky to tell what is true, embellished or simply fiction. Much of this is very cleverly written and will provoke debate about reality and memory, but once the book goes past the school teen section which deals with ‘The Pallbearers’ Club’ of the title, not enough happens and my interest began to diminish.

The initial idea and opening fifty pages are great: Art is in his final year of high school and although he is academically strong, has little of note (or extra credits) to put on his college applications to make himself stand out. Due to long-term problems with his back, he does not participate in sport or any other curricular activities and to beef up his applications starts up a pallbearer’s club, effectively himself and a couple of disgruntled classmates who attend the funerals of those with no living relatives to make up the numbers. Via this ‘club’ he meets Mercy Brown and some of these scenes are quite funny, as Art takes his responsibilities very seriously as he is painfully shy and meeting girls at funerals is better than not meeting girls at all!

Is it a memoir or a novel? Which of the two main characters can we trust? Your enjoyment of The Pallbearers Club may very much depend on how you enjoy Paul Tremblay literary manoeuvres around these questions. Even though Art is very quick to blame others for his problems, the story also covers other areas, including aging, addiction and mental health. The novel repeatedly blurs the lines between fiction and memory via an unconventional friendship, but one could argue that Art Barbara just does not have the depth of character or is interesting enough to build a book around.

Paul Tremblay’s attempts at a lighter kind of horror are hit and miss, coming across as something which wanders into Grady Hendrix territory and lacks substance. It does not have the bite of his best work, both in the horror and emotional departments and although it may have more literary subtleties than the deadly virus-driven Survivor Song, it falls well short in every other department.

Grades:

Overall: 2.5 Star Rating Cover
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Tony Jones
Staff Reviewer
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.
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