You should know up front that we loved Steven Amsterdam’s first two books – Things We Didn’t See Coming & What The Family Needed – and we were looking forward to The Easy Way Out a great deal. This is important because preconceptions can colour an experience. Three books in, now, we thought we could rely on Amsterdam not to disappoint. The fact that he has, here, ever so slightly, may be as much our fault as his. A book is a contract, after all, between the reader and the writer and only comes alive in the space between. In this particular interaction, well… Let’s get to it.
The Easy Way Out concerns Evan, a young, gay nurse who has just begin a new role, assisting the elderly and the terminally infirm to die (you should know, this is a book set ever so slightly in the future, but it could be about ten minutes in the future, there are no gadgets, there are no dysfunctional governments, there are no aliens and nothing out of the ordinary – there is just this tweak, a world in which assisted suicides are not entirely illegal, although there are hidebound by rules). In many ways, this is a bureaucratic world and much of the drama of the novel centres on rules and Evan’s apparent flouting of them. Our hero is defintely on a journey through the book, from the disciplines of a legal environment to – eventually – a world more on the fringes of what is allowable. We are also privvy to Evan’s personal life, as you’d expect, his relationship with his bolshy mother, Viv, who is living with Parkinson’s and is in the grip of a trial drug that gives her a surprising boost, and his relationship with two men, Lon and Simon, who feel far more for Evan than he does for them (there is a touch of coolness to Evan, he has a shard of Patrick Batemen in his character – but only a shard).
So what’s the problem? In one word, the book feels flat. There was no point during the reading of The Easy Way Out when it stopped feeling like a novel. Throughout, this reader had the experience of reading a book about made-up characters (which is strange, given that Amsterdam is apparently a nurse too so this is a world he is within shouting distance of, it should be a world he can easily bring to life given that he brought to life two strange worlds in his previous books). When this failure to combust is combined with the promise of a book you’re looking forward to, well, the disappointment is great. (We’ve all been there, right?) Now this isn’t a savage indictment. How many books actually blow your socks off? A handful, right? And how many books are just the next book, the book between the last and the next? Most of them, right? Right. If you think about Stephen King’s Dr Sleep (a very different book, we know), he had assisted suicide as a skein within a wider narrative (and that wasn’t entirely successful, we felt); Amsterdam does the same, and again it doesn’t quite work. Which means I think that the great assisted suicide novel is yet to be written (or can’t be written, assisted suicide being a dead piano key of a subject).
Any Cop?: Not a duff book by any means, merely an adequate one whose adequacy is brought into harsh definition as a result of how great his first two books were. Let’s hope it’s merely a blip.