Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I would be remiss in my duties as a reader, writer, and fanboy if I didn't warn you that if you go into this book while not in tip-top mental or emotional health, then reader discretion is advised.
I was a pretty big fan of Zentner's debut, The Serpent King, and so I was looking forward a lot to his follow-up, Goodbye Days. While this book is no less readable than Serpent, it's nowhere near as enjoyable, and that, for me, largely stems from the fact that it's not only got a protagonist who's less instantly relatable than Travis, Lydia, or Dill, but also because Zentner takes more than a few headlong dives into death, grief, and mental illness.
I admit, when I first heard of this book, I was a bit scared that Zentner was taking too many risks with the premise. But I also admit that I misinterpreted said premise, believing that Carver, our protagonist, directly caused the deaths of his friends by attempting to answer a text, crashing the car, and killing them all while he survived. The truth, however, is that he sent the text to his friends while they were on the road, and as a result, he's consumed by guilt, believing himself responsible for their deaths. So, in a sense, it's got a few shades of The Great American Whatever, only the protagonist is straight as opposed to gay. (One of his three dead friends is gay, though, and I'd like to mention that his full name, Blake Jackson Lloyd, reminds me of a fairly little-known Booktuber whose Red Rising review video is required viewing for all Pierce Brown fans...but that's not exactly germane to this discussion.)
If you read The Serpent King, you'll remember that that book was set in Tennessee, and is thus full of descriptions of hot, sticky, sweaty Southern summers. Goodbye Days continues that trend, allowing for a certain distinctive Zentner voice to show. But the thing is, it's now filtered through the perspective of a character who, again, reminds me a little too much of Tim Federle's Great American protagonist with his toolish ways of attempting to cope with his grief. Carver also has certain artistic leanings, being a writer, and I liked that Zentner made him somewhat of an unpopular guy at his arts-oriented high school, because the popular kids are dancers and stuff, and writers, well, sometimes aren't counted as artists. (A surefire way to offend me - tell me I'm no artist when my only art form in which I'm remotely proficient is creative writing.)
So Carver's not the nicest of guys. He gets casually racist and sexist at times, and while he's always quickly called out on it (usually by his love interest, Jesmyn, who used to date one of his dead buddies), and knows he's wrong, he doesn't seem to learn much from it. (I'm also more than a bit weirded out by the moment where, as part of the "goodbye day" where he relives his memories of Blake with Blake's grandmother, he basically outs the guy to her postmortem. Insert Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler going off on Carver with a "Really?!" segment on "Weekend Update.") Then again, though, his frequent panic attacks (described in some pretty nasty detail - this can be triggering, so beware!) make him a little more sympathetic, because as much as he can't have possibly known his friends were going to die after he sent them THAT TEXT, he's so guilt-ridden it hurts.
I'm not particularly prone to panic attacks myself, but I do have (undiagnosed) issues with anxiety and depression (and guilt, though that's mostly because I was raised Catholic), and I also have a certain fear that I'll eventually start experiencing panic attacks someday. With that in mind, I found Goodbye Days a bit of a tough read. It was fast, at the very least, but that was probably because I just wanted to end it because I've been in a bad place lately. Books don't normally trigger me much, if at all, but feeling as mentally fraught as I do right now, I think maybe I should have waited a little longer to read this book. And if you have any emotional health issues yourself, I'd honestly advise you to wait too, or even not read the book at all.
But that's just my opinion. I obviously don't speak for all people with mental and/or emotional illness, diagnosed or not.
If nothing else, though, there is one person that makes this book absolutely worth a try someday, and that's Georgia. If you don't love her from the get-go, shame on you.
I'll still look forward to all future Jeff Zentner books, but based on this one, I'm going to have to lower the bar and not expect too much based on The Serpent King alone.
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