Jessica Mitford, author of the quintessential funeral industry expose, The American Way of Death, died recently (she was cremated, as per her instructions). One wonders what the old muckraker would have made of David Prill’s slipstream debut novel The Unnatural. I suspect she would have been pleasantly shocked to find that Prill had successfully parodied a subject she thought beyond parody.
The Unnatural tells the story of Andy Archway, the young phenom destined to break Janus P. Mordecai’s single-season embalming record. Think about the accumulated tropes of every inspiring baseball movie ever made applied to the world of funeral homes, and you’ll have an idea what The Unnatural is like. With the skill of a born parodist, Prill keeps the prose straight-faced throughout, employing his transmogrified sports clichés with unflinching earnestness. The overall effect is wickedly funny.
The strangest thing about this novel is it’s eerie plausibility. So many aspects of professional sports have become so patently absurd that The Unnatural’s depiction of them is a parody only by virtue of its funerary setting. And history is littered with cultures whose death rituals are far more obsessive and less bizarre than the ones depicted here. It’s all too easy to imagine a world where magazines like Respectful Casket Tales show up on the newsstand next to Reader’s Digest.
For it’s first two-thirds of this book is one of the funniest novels I’ve read this decade. Alas, then there’s the rest of the book, which is not so much bad as disappointing. The novel founders on the rocks of inadvisable authorial choices, the humor sinking slowly beneath the waves of a muddled plot. There are other missteps here, such as too much time spent on the villainous Drabford brothers compared to their overall role.
Still, these are forgivable flaws for an author’s first novel, especially one so funny. The Unnatural is the This is Spinal Tap of funerals.