With a premise like this, ‘Westlake Soul’ could be an absolute horror show, but Rio Youers’ skillful blend of liberating fantasy and harrowing reality manages not to fall into this trap; bittersweet, moving, quietly heartbreaking, definitely. A morbid geek show of suffering and tragedy, no. Bad things sometimes happen to good people; the peculiarly named Westlake Soul (former surfing champion and the son of aging hippies) is all too familiar with this. Like Shawn McDaniel, the protagonist of Terry Trueman’s ‘Stuck in Neutral,’ Westlake is trapped within his own body and rendered thoroughly unable to communicate.
While ‘Stuck in Neutral”s principal character suffered from debilitating Cerebral Palsy, Westlake is in a persistent vegetative state following a near-fatal surfing accident. A keen mind trapped within a broken body, Westlake cannot convince anyone of his sentience. So when his grieving parents decide to disengage his feeding tube, Westlake must prepare for a slow, painful death by starvation while his parents, totally unaware of his cognizance, look on.
This all sounds terribly grim and depressing, but the subject matter is lightened somewhat by Westlake’s sense of humor and resilience concerning his mortality as well as his best-kept secret- Having had 100% of his mental capacity awakened by the accident, Westlake discovers the powers of astral projection and ESP, as well as an active fantasy life (?) where he plays the role of an able-bodied superhero battling the evil Doctor Quietus, the very personification of death.
In between astral projecting himself wherever he wants, carrying on long conversations with Hub, the family dog, and falling in love with his beautiful carer Yvette, Westlake watches as everyone he loves gives up believing in the possibility of his recovery. He is the ultimate passive observer- as inert and impotently defenseless as a lawn ornament, but mentally able and even capable of the most extraordinary power of all, finding humor and hope in his terrible situation.
Sometimes Westlake’s character seems a bit glib and immature as well as overly sexual minded (you can astral project anywhere in the universe so you go to Angelina Jolie’s pad to watch her take a shower??) but we have to remember we are reading the narrative of a 21-year-old guy, one who just months ago was getting smashed at beach parties and nightclubs. The caretaker eroticism is a little icky (the protagonist yearning over his dream girl while she changes his diaper,) but it’s not as disturbing as Yvette’s apparent returning of his affections.
What was with that kiss? Yes, Westlake is sentient and fully willing, but Yvette has no way of knowing that. While Westlake was enthusing about how awesome the kiss was, I kept thinking “she kissed a diaper-clad vegetable? With tongue?” Good luck finding a novel where a male caretaker smooches (i.e. molests) a female patient in a persistent vegetative state. On the other hand, the author does an amazing job of balancing the fantasy elements (Doctor Quietus and Westlake’s special powers) with the heartrending family drama and emotional significance of the family’s final decision.
I’m not ashamed to admit I teared up twice during this novel’s touching passages regarding love and mortality. When you think about it, Westlake’s a pretty profound guy, albeit young and rather immature in some respects. “Westlake Soul” has been described as a superhero book, but to call it a comic book-esque novel would be to misrepresent it, as well as it’s considerable depth. “…Soul” is less of a book about heroes, super or otherwise, and more a book about life- the unfairness of it, but also the beauty, the wonder, and the gift of being human. Westlake reminds us how tenuous our fragile grip on life is, and how we can’t take that fragility for granted. And he makes you laugh as well. That perhaps, is the greatest gift he imparts.