Review: Avoiding Mortimer by J. W. Wargo
By Michael Allen Rose
When I finished J. W. Wargo’s delightful debut Avoiding Mortimer a few months ago, I avoided writing this review. I could have sat down immediately after finishing it, in one sitting, but I wasn’t sure I’d be impartial, having just traversed Wargo’s world, and maybe I’d be projecting. The next day, I almost wrote it, but then I worried that maybe I wouldn’t be able to find the words, and then I’d get mad at myself, and maybe even become suicidal or something, because I’d feel like a failure as a reviewer. So I decided to continue avoiding the task before me, and yet, Avoiding Mortimer stayed bouncing around in my brain. Relentlessly. I realized: I was doing the same thing Mortimer tried to do. I was avoiding life. So I sat down and let my experience pour out here on the page, and do I feel better? You bet. You will too when you crack the spine and dive into the pages of Avoiding Mortimer.
Poor Mortimer. Growing up in a household where his entire family was terrified of everything (until they decide to go undead to try to avoid death, at least) obviously had quite an impact on him. As an “adult,” he tries his best to avoid everything: doing things, feeling things, talking to people, being outside, living, dying. What’s that? You can’t avoid dying? Mortimer does. Sort of. And this kind of avoidance of everything not only provides wonderful comical and philosophical fodder for Wargo to explore, but also makes for a perfect bizarro premise due to its impossibility. How can one avoid everything when everything is something, even nothing?
I admit, I have a certain fondness for afterlife comedy, especially when its weird. Avoiding Mortimer joins such stories as Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens and Gina Ranalli’s Suicide Girls in the Afterlife on the list of unique and fascinating treatments of what happens to us after we die. Being a bizarro book, of course there are strange flourishes here and there. Supporting characters such as a sentient wig made of dreadlocks and a soul-sucking blob of half-digested ants add to the chaos while giving Mortimer other beings to interact with – despite his avoidance issues. Even God makes an appearance, although he’s certainly not what you might expect. Or maybe he is, if like myself, you’re a fan of existentialist and absurdist lit. The combination of these elements is where Avoiding Mortimer truly thrives. Wargo has a talent for layering strange, wild and funny storytelling over top of a psychologically exploratory and philosophically deep treatise on how he sees the universe. Those readers who follow his blogs and online writing will be familiar with Wargo’s fascination with the id, the ego and the super-ego, all of which are utilized to their utmost both as concepts and as quasi-characters. All of these elements together are entertaining and incredibly explosive. Don’t avoid picking this one up, as its a rare combination of thoughtful and silly that will appeal to any and all fans of weird fiction.