I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of Gregory Hill before a couple weeks ago (even though East of Denver won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award last summer, finally emerging from the publishing process on July 5th from Dutton). I felt like going to a reading during July, so I was going through the list of readings at the various Tattered Cover locations in the area. I didn’t recognize anybody on the list, but East of Denver looked interesting.
I mean, think about it: a guy (Stacey “Shakespeare” Williams) goes home to his father’s farm to bury his cat. He finds out that his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, has been cheated out of the farm and even his plane. With a couple friends from his old high school (a paraplegic stuck in his mother’s basement and an overweight bank teller/softball pitcher/anorexic), the guy decides to rob the bank. If nothing else, it certainly looked like the most interesting reading to hit.
And, it was. Hill started out the reading talking about the history of the mustache (incidentally, yelling at poorly driven cars with mustache and beard yields compliance whereas the same behavior with just the mustache yields hostility and even chasing). Somehow, this led into how Hill had wanted to write about Alzheimer’s without writing about all the terrible things that are always part of that terrible disease (as well as how this was originally going to be a zombie book, though that never turned out). He mentioned that even without all the hilarity he oddly wrote into this kind of story some people were still touched, seeing “the lip behind the mustache.”
By that point, I was definitely on board. This only magnified when Hill actually read a section from the book where Shakespeare and his father have to wait for someone to arrive to tell them if they’ve been sprayed by a skunk (neither were born with a sense of smell). Shakespeare keeps his lost father busy by walking him to different positions on the farm to watch the moon rise (i.e., they watch it rise above a building and then Shakespeare walks to a different spot so the building still hides the moon until it rises more), fresh for his father each time.
East of Denver is crazy. It’s offbeat and hilarious, but there is a tenderness that moves the reader in the midst of all the antics. I laughed as I read, but I also felt pangs of sad/warm empathy for the characters. Their lives have fallen apart, and are falling apart further, but they continue to live and most of the time try to do the best by each other that they can. I could see “the lip behind the mustache.” There may not be zombies, but Hill has definitely written an original and interesting book.