It’s a Wonderful Death: A Thanksgiving Carol

This novel is reminiscent of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol -- but with a twist.

“The day of Ray’s death was otherwise uneventful.”

So begins Jay Brandon’s Thanksgiving Eve. This novel can be described as reminiscent of two classic Christmas tales: Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The latter is not arguably the best and most perfect novella in the English language. Along with countless movie versions, that probably explains why Dickens’ story is more often taken for granted than actually read, but Brandon has read and loved this demonstration of how a hero’s changed attitude can transform his world.

As Ray drives to his house in San Antonio, Texas, he recalls yesterday’s ominous and frustrating visit to his doctor, who said something vague about an MRI scheduled for the morrow.

Dr. Sullivan was the first doctor Ray had had as an adult, and now it seemed he would be the only doctor he ever got. The doctor defied expectations. He was tall, overweight, a little ponderous, full of great advice he didn’t seem to take himself… Ray suspected Dr. Sullivan carried on all the vices and careless behaviors he advised his patients against, but he also knew some medical secret, not yet ready for release to the general public, that kept him healthy anyway.

On the second page, Brandon describes Ray’s MRI. “It seemed to take him forever to divest himself of all his metal: cell phone, watch, belt, coins, glasses, like giving up his life bit by bit. As he walked out toward the giant tube he felt lighter, less bound to the earth.”

The following scene is so detailed and so reminiscent of what my late mother told me of her MRIs that I must resist the urge to quote it in full. One highlight:

Then the machine started its work, abruptly, with a clang that made Ray sure it had just broken. He felt guilty. The machine had taken one quick glimpse inside his head and seized up in fright. But no, it continued, clunking and clanging like nothing he’d ever heard; nothing working properly, anyway. This was what a Ferris wheel would sound like just before it slipped its gear and threw all its passengers hurtling across the fairgrounds.


Ray closed his eyes, which only helped the way closing your eyes right before the car wreck helps.

Such are the first two pages: wit, precise and vivid descriptions of characters and events, and the suspenseful and ironic narrative hook of a promise that Ray will die today in a manner obviously unrelated to these health issues now preoccupying him. Apparently death, like life, also happens while you’re making other plans. We don’t have to wait long for that particular payoff. Indeed, Ray is dead by the end of the chapter, shortly after we’ve been introduced with the same emblematic precision to his family enacting their suffocating web of issues and relationships.

These events occur on Christmas Eve, just in time for a contemporary Christmas carol. Why is the book named after Thanksgiving Eve? Because the narrative finds Ray posthumously drifting backwards, not quite in a Groundhog Day manner, reliving recent events with refreshed perspective and making what headway he can toward repairing the final days of his life.

Although I’ve named several well-known titles that this book is “like”, it’s so fresh and unpredictable a variant that I was as surprised and perplexed as Ray by twists of life tossed in his direction. Ray, like the rest of us, is so steeped in these kinds of modern fairy tales that he “gets it” as far as he can and doesn’t waste time denying what’s happening or doing stupid things. He keeps his eyes out for “signs” from the universe and anticipates changes that never happen in favor of new ones that do, just as we hope we’d do in the situation.

Full disclosure: I know Jay Brandon. I’ve been to his house. I’ve eaten his food, drunk his wine, and studied the books along his walls. That’s why I know about the existence of this book, and it’s why I checked it out of the library when I saw it in the New Books section. (Sorry, Jay, no cash in your pocket.) It’s not, however, why I’m writing this, because I’m under zero obligations toward it. If I didn’t like it, I’d be keeping my mouth shut. That’s why this article isn’t a standard review, but more of a meditation.

I read a lot of books, or at least partly read them. If I get to around page 50 and stop to ask myself if I’m sufficiently interested to continue reading, I realize that I’ve answered my own question. When I don’t stop to ask because I’m too busy turning pages, that’s a book I finish.

The books I stop reading are usually afflicted with one of two conditions. Some have good plots couched in clumsy prose. Let’s call this, oh, I don’t know, “Brownism”. I have no idea why that particular word occurs to me out of the ether, except that some prose reads like chewing brown cardboard. It falls into certain pattersons, I mean patterns, so that you’re basically reading a TV show written down: glib expository dialogue linked by action sentences. He slammed the door. She waved the gun. “I’ve got a gun!” The car exploded.

We might call the other affliction something like Literistrophy or Liter-iasis, as it’s when Fine Prose is lavished on not much of a story. I shan’t offer examples because we can all be on the same page, as it were, on the principle. Specifics become fighting words, so let’s bask in the sweet harmony of unity.

It’s a pleasure to find a novel with a good story that’s both traditional and unpredictable, peopled by characters convincing and vivid, and narrated with seamless skill and felicitous turns of phrase. I also appreciate when a story sticks by the candid and unfettered POV of its hero instead of following the contemporary impulse to fragment all over the place, either at random like a soap opera or with a self-consciously clever structure that nevertheless manages to be coy and withholding about crucial info like whether this particular person is a serial-killing Martian or with whom she’s committing adultery, the better to manipulate an alleged surprise. I’m looking at you, Girl on the Train.

In truth, Brandon does shift for a few paragraphs to a neighbor’s POV on page 107, which only emphasizes how unnecessary such things are. It’s a tiny lapse into a melodramatic side-story resolved more easily than the rest of it.

Most of the book, however, feels credible within its fantasy because details are so well-chosen. In Chapter 8, Ray brings his sullen video-gaming son to the crisis of a leaking pipe at work. Dealing with a plumbing issue doesn’t rank high on my list of novelistic excitements, possibly because I don’t know a valve from a widget, yet it’s an excellent and revealing scene.

‘I’m not a manager. I’m a supervisor.’ Ray said the clipped sentences by rote, lessening the impact on him of the words, which were the most bitter ones he knew. No matter how good he was at his job, no matter how much more he knew than everyone else, no matter how they relied on him for crises like this and a hundred others a month, he would never make management. That took a degree in business. A high school diploma and a few business courses at the community college could only take you to the point where you were over-qualified for your job and so had to do more work than the upper-echelon goofs who counted on you to fix their mistakes.

An entire life, society and worldview summed up with psychological clarity, and who doesn’t get it?

I’ll say nothing about the ending save that it’s sentimental and satisfying. Although nobody will ever write anything as good as A Christmas Carol again, it’s still a model to which more of us should aspire. As with the rest of our hectic plodding distracted lives, we can but try, and perhaps we can come closer than we think if we try to be kinder to each other. That’s what the book tells us, and we need to hear it, again and again. One day, it will penetrate.

Brandon is a practicing lawyer who’s currently an Assistant DA in charge of San Antonio’s Conviction Integrity Unit, an independent section created, as per its webpage, to “investigate claims of actual innocence or wrongful convictions by convicted defendants who have already been through their trial and appeal processes”.

Most of his almost 20 novels are legal thrillers with continuing characters. I’ve read one, Sliver Moon (that’s “sliver”, not “silver”) that kept me up and reminded of Cornell Woolrich, and I read the first draft of a Port Aransas ghost story that was heavily revised into The Jetty. Obviously, I haven’t been keeping up, but Thanksgiving Eve reminds me I probably should, if only to have fewer books that I put aside at page 50.

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