Reflection: The Paul Mann Story, by Titan Frey

Reflection: The Paul Mann Story, is a relatively short novel that reads more like the outline for a story than a completed book.  The plot points lurch along in quick succession with little connection, detail, or explanation.  The characters lack depth (or names in many cases) and are two-dimensional ideas rather than fully developed people.  The back story has the potential to create some dramatic and emotional scenes, but those scenes are missing and the back story is presented in such a clunky manner that it lacks and emotional impact.  The dialogue is stilted and repetitive (Mr. Frey really needs an editor), and the story lacks a logical flow and ultimately lacks any point.  I cannot recommend this book on any level.  If you read the book teaser and are expecting an exciting and emotional retrospective on one man’s life, you will be extremely disappointed. Save your money (and your time) and skip this one.

Author Titan Frey tells us in the teaser on amazon for this book that it will be about the reflections of a 104-year-old man about his life.  We’re promised that Paul Mann will read to his grandson from his journals, which will “relive his best moments with his late wife, Janet.  He also relives the horrors he saw in the second world war, and from [sic] his crazy, murderer of a step-father.”  The reality of the book is quite different, starting with the fact that Janet is not Paul’s dead wife.  Janet is the name of Paul’s daughter-in-law, the mother of his grandson, Marlin (who is really the main character).  Paul’s wife was named Carol. (This error may have be fixed after this review is posted, but the author’s lack of attention to his own details in his amazon book summary speaks volumes about the lack of quality of writing here.)  And although there are journals in the book, Paul does very little reading from them, and they tell us nothing about his dead wife, or his WWII “horrors” or anything about his crazy step-father.  Sure, we are told in summary fashion that Paul’s step-father murdered Paul’s mother, then crashed his car into a tree with Paul inside.  But that’s it. There is nothing else at all about the step-father, or what motivated him to kill his wife, or how it happened, or what Paul’s reaction was.  It’s just one of a dozen small facts about Paul’s life that is stated, but without any meaning or detail.

That’s the biggest problem with this book, it has no detail about meaningful things.  Early on, Paul manages to expose the evil family of his neighbor at the nursing home where he lives.  The family (supposedly) was able to starve poor Ethel to death by instructing the nurses not to feed her, because she couldn’t swallow anything (although she really could).  After Ethel dies, Paul struggles out of his bed and into his wheelchair, where he confronts the murderous daughter-in-law (who is still there with the dead body) and gets her to confess to the murder, which Paul tape records on a recorder he happens to have with him (was it always in the wheelchair, just in case he needed it?).  The police are called, and the murderer is carted away.  End of vignette.  The whole sequence takes up two pages.  Ethel was not introduced as a character prior to her death, and has no role in Paul’s life before or after.  Paul is, presumably, a big hero around the nursing home after that, but we never hear about it. Instead, we hear about how the new assistant nurse wants to kill Paul, for no particular reason.  Then, after Paul manages to kill the evil assistant nurse with a butter knife, the evil head nurse decides that she wants to murder Paul, in revenge for Paul’s killing of the assistant nurse, who worked there only a week.  (I use the word “evil” repetitively here because that’s the language the author uses, repetitively.)  We are never told why the head nurse, called “Nurse Smith” (none of the peripheral characters in this story have first names) is so enraged by the death of nurse Roberson that she develops an obsession with killing Paul.  She just is an “evil” person.

All of this is problematic, but not central to what should be the story of the novel – the relationship between Paul and his grandson, Marlin, and between Paul and his son, Mike.  Mike has not spoken to Paul, nor allowed Marlin to speak to him, for six years leading up to the beginning of the book.  Marlin “meets” his grandfather for what he perceives as the first time, in the nursing home, where he immediately falls in love with his awesome grandpa.  The back story of why Marlin has been kept away from Paul, and how this fractured family comes back together, should be the emotional core of this story.  Unfortunately, the author can’t seem to find it.

In the first brief visit to the nursing home, Paul tells Marlin about how he has been keeping a journal all his life (since he was ten years old, Marlin’s current age).  Paul has Marlin pull out an old journal (out of a “sack” in the closet) and Paul reads to him some snippets from his diary.  Then, while Paul sleeps (he’s 104 years old, after all), Marlin reads some himself, and he is exposed to the wonders of Paul’s life.  (The dairy entries themselves are poorly written, not dated, and include material that no person would ever write themselves in a diary, but the journal entries are also entirely devoid of any details about what happened to Paul, but rather just short summaries.  “Today I climbed to the top of mount Fiji and I’ve decided that I no longer hate the Japanese people.”)

These diary entries of the old man’s life should provide the reader with insight into his passion for his wife, Carol, the emotions and horrors of being a front-line soldier, his relationships with his comrades in arms, his struggles upon returning home from war, his joy in having his own son, his complex relationship with his son, Mike, his struggles to deal with Mike’s drug addiction, and his life experiences that relate back to Marlin.  But we get none of this.  Instead, the author gives Paul a Forest Gump life, making him a player in numerous momentous moments in the history of the 20th century.  He fought in World War II in the Pacific theatre,(including the battle of Bataan in the Philippines.  Somehow (and we’re not told how), Paul was neither killed nor was he among the 76,000 soldiers who surrendered to the Japanese and were imprisoned.  History records nobody who survived Bataan, yet Paul somehow returns home – and then is re-assigned to Europe, where he battles the Nazis.  After fighting on the front lines in Europe, Paul is brought back to the US and assigned to work on the Manhattan project, where he played some unspecified, but important role in creating the atomic bomb.  (We’re told that, after being orphaned, Paul put himself through college and got a degree in chemical engineering, but it is not explained how that background made him a necessary part of the nuclear bomb-building project, nor how the time line fits together.)  He was so involved, in fact, that he knew that the bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, even before it happened, and he knew that if the Japanese didn’t immediately surrender, there would be another bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later.  (It’s amazing that he could have known this top secret information and written it in his journal in real time.)  And Paul later was recruited to work at the military base in Roswell, New Mexico, when something strange fell from the sky, but a key page that might have described the alien space ship was torn out of the journal.  And then he worked for NASA and helped land a man on the moon (again, there is no explanation about why a chemical engineer was needed for that project or what role he played).  And on it goes from there.  I’m surprised that Paul wasn’t present for the Kennedy assassination and that he didn’t help invent the internet.  The problem is that Paul’s involvement in these events is not explained or detailed at all.  They are just throw-away lines – things that happened in Paul’s life that he recorded in a few lines of his journals with the same level of attention as “today it rained.”  They are cartoonish and so skeletal that they are irrelevant, except that Marlin sees his Grandfather as such a hero and a great man that he wants to use him as the subject for his fifth grade report on “my hero.”

Much of the action in the story, such a there is, takes place inside the nursing home where Paul is a resident.  Unfortunately, the author seems to have no concept of how a nursing home works and perhaps has never visited one.  Aside from fetching coffee for Paul (his special formula of coffee made from beans that have been eaten and then pooped out by cats in Indonesia), the nursing staff is described as being somehow under the control of the evil head nurse (Nurse Smith), but has no ability to intervene or inform anyone else when Ethel is being killed by her family, or when they learn that Nurse Smith is trying to kill Paul.  There are no doctors, and Nurse Smith is able to drug Paul into a constant state of sedated unconsciousness based on a phone call with Janet (Marlin’s mother), who gives the authorization because Janet (at that moment in the story) does not want Marlin to have any more contact with his grandfather.

These events are presented as if in a children’s story, in simplistic and repetitive terms.  (The cat jumped over the fence and the evil, vicious dog tried to eat her.  The cat leaped to safety on top of the fence and taunted the angry dog.  Then the farmer, who was practicing his target shooting nearby, shot the cat, who died.)  The dialogue throughout the book is decidedly juvenile also, as if written by Marlin, the fifth grader.  (“Mom, there’s a journal on my table!” Marlin screamed.  The next morning arrived and Marlin woke up to find a journal lying on his table.)  There is no emotional impact.  Paul describes his “beautiful wife” (many times) and how he loves her and is ready to die so he can be with her, and all the characters are described as shedding tears whenever they read Paul’s dairy or deal with any of the events in the story, but the tears are cardboard.  There are also several appearances by Paul as a ghost or apparition in Marlin’s mind, but without particular purpose of importance.

There are simply too many problems with this book to list them all, even in summary.  There is a germ of a good story here, and perhaps a good editor and a lot of rewriting could have turned this draft into something publishable.  For his next book, Mr. Frey needs to take some more time, work on his dialogue writing, and engage a good editor.

Here’s all you need to know. {Yes, **Spoiler Alert** but there is so little to be spoiled here that I have no hesitation to include this in the review}  Near the end of the book, Mike (the estranged son of Paul Mann, the title character) goes to the nursing home alone to get another volume of his father’s journals, which are being used by Marlin (Mike’s son and Paul’s grandson) for Marlin’s school report about “my hero.”  At this point, the reader has been (summarily) clued in to the story of how Mike and his wife were drug addicts, how they gave Marlin to Paul (Mike’s 94-year-old father) to raise (somehow) alone for four years.  Then, Mike and Janet got themselves clean (no explanation about how that happened) and Mike went to college and got a job as an accountant while Janet “invented some shampoo” (again, no details) and sold her invention to a big company for a lot of money.  So, now Mike and Janet were clean and had money — and they are ready to take Marlin back from Mike’s now-98-year-old father.  But, Paul doesn’t want to give Marlin up, so Mike and Janet go to court to obtain custody of Marlin over Paul’s objection, after which Mike cut his father completely out of his life and out of Marlin’s life for six years.  (There’s no explanation or detail about any of this.)  We also know that Paul was abusive and strict during Mike’s childhood and that Mike never had a good relationship with Paul.  In other words, there are a lot of issues here between these two men.  Mike took Marlin to see Paul after the long hiatus only because Paul had an unspecified medical emergency a few weeks earlier, making Mike think that Paul didn’t have much time left and (for some reason) Mike wanted to give Marlin a chance to see Paul before he died.  (Mike and Janet kept all this from Marlin.)  So, this meeting between Paul and Mike should be the emotional climax of this relationship, if not the whole book.  This is the time that Paul and Mike can air their feelings and maybe reach some personal reconciliation.  There are decades of pent up emotion here.  The author tells us that Paul and Mike talked for 15 minutes — and then Mike left.  Not a single detail about what they said to each other.  Nothing.  There should be a whole chapter just in that fifteen minute conversation, but we get none of it.

This whole book is like the hole in the donut — surrounded by appetizing material, but empty.

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