Sometimes the problem with life after loss is that it’s not really life. Ezekiel “Kel” Warbis knows all about this. Back in high school, Kel was best friends and mutual crushes with Tomas Ozalla and June Ikeda. Then, Tomas died during one of their many adventures. There wasn’t even a body to bury to help give Kel and June closure, and they were left adrift. June eventually severed the tether between them and Kel was alone. More than a decade later, Kel ekes out a living as a private investigator and his seven, eight, or possibly nine dogs are more than companions; they’re a reason to keep going. Over the course of his entire adult life, those dogs and a police detective named Yamato are the only friends Kel has made.
One day, a trio of teenagers reach out to Kel for help finding their missing friend. Two things immediately ping Kel’s radar. One, the way their friend went missing without a trace reminds Kel of how Tomas’ body was never found. Two, the friend’s name is Trevor Ozalla (the same last name as Tomas). The missing teen himself has a gruesome backstory. Years ago, Trevor’s older brother murdered their parents with a sledgehammer and burned the family home to the ground. Trevor’s friends guess that Trevor is trying to track down his brother; they are afraid of what will happen if Trevor finds him.
Kel reluctantly agrees to help and his initial investigation unearths old news stories about the murder spree. Those stories begin to bleed into the recurring dream (or nightmares) Kel has always had about the night Tomas died, or after one of June’s suicide attempts. It doesn’t take long before Kel’s dreams and reality begin to bleed together in inexplicable ways. That would be frightening if the promise of answers weren’t such a clarion call. Before long, Kel realizes what that call is telling him: death isn’t as permanent as he once thought. But will he be able to leverage what he learns in order to find and save Trevor? To find and save himself?
Last Man Standing is a contemporary mystery/thriller/paranormal story from author Augustus Roth (a pen name for Daniel May). As readers may imagine from my summary, the book absolutely delivers on the angst and intrigue. Kel may need a pack of pups to remind him he’s alive, but he hasn’t quite checked out entirely. He still feels enough to have incredible compassion for the teenagers that reach out to him. Also, in the several scenes between Kel and Yamato, we glimpse some of the levity that Kel still manages to tap into, at least when it serves his newfound purpose of uncovering the truth about death.
Roth writes stunning prose. The book opens with a scene about the day Tomas died during one of the teenagers’ many urbex outings. The way Roth describes the events unfolding instantly had me enjoying the dynamic between Tomas, June, and Kel. These three teenagers are full of emotions and hormones and shyly just letting their mutual affection for each other guide their time together. And, of course, the imagery of what happens after an accident leaves Tomas pinned under collapsed structures with water rising ever higher…my jaw literally dropped as Roth described the scene. The delicious shock of pretending until the end, of reading the painful line about Tomas’ eyes blinking one last time under water. It was a hell of a way to start a book, that’s for sure. I thought it was brilliant that Kel relives this moment of Tomas dying, but reimagined in several different settings. It really conveyed how deeply Kel’s friends’ deaths affected him. We also find out later that it’s a blunt clue about the truth.
The pacing and the structure of the story were also superb. Everything unfolds so beautifully. At first, everything has the patina of Kel simply being a tragic survivor. I completely forgot that was supposed to be anything paranormal or horror-esque at all. To be honest, the chunk of the book that presents itself as a straightforward private investigator story did go on long enough for me to feel just a bit bored. But after a good period of establishing just how mundane everything is, the story takes a hard turn into the fantastical when Kel ends up shooting someone point blank and they don’t bleed, much less die. From that moment on, the paranormal elements begin building and Kel gets ever closer to the truth. It often puts him in danger and I liked the tension this creates in the mood of the book. In other words, watching Kel figure things out made me worry he was less and less likely to make it out unscathed.
The official blurb labels this as a romance, but I rather got the impression this was more about the (sustaining and destructive) power of love. At first, I was thinking Kel, Tomas, and June were all in some kind of love triangle angling to pair off in specific ways. But to me, I didn’t feel like any one of them took a back seat to any other pairing. There is a lot of shared affection, gentle caresses, and corny writing-our-names-and-drawing-a-heart-around-it moments. There were kisses for all, so no one got jealous of anyone else. There were the kind of naive dreams you’d expect from teenagers, like the tacit expectation that all three of them would grow up and share a house. Each of the three boys brought something to their dynamic. So for me, it was pretty clear that these three were building a polyamorous relationship. And when Tomas died, there was sorrow not just for the death of a friend, but for the knowledge that this romance would never mend because one of the principles had died. All of which is to say, I felt this story had romance in it, but it was an existing foundation that had cracked (even before the present-day events of the story itself occurred), rather than a foundation being constructed as part of the main plot of the book.
My only minor criticism stems from the world building. To be clear, I loved the sense of the mystery and terror about how and why death wasn’t as permanent as Kel (and the reader) thought. This new reality is slowly uncovered and in small doses without any big exposition laying everything out. There are even a few meaty scenes where Kel and other characters philosophize about what it all means and why that helps blur any clear ideas about what it means to die. I think it works well to have the details about how and why and for whom death is not permanent so obfuscated. It really helped me suspend my disbelief that somehow, little old Kel and his friend Tomas somehow ended up having a critical artifact that sort of inexplicably resolved the issue with Death (as a concept, as an entity). I was able to suspend my disbelief about who it was who somehow unraveled the true nature of Death, despite there being others who would have had literal lifetimes to try to figure it all out. I feel like the impermanence of death as portrayed in this book is kind of the point. Maybe it’s not supposed to make sense. But outside the heat of the moment, I did get a big sense of “but why these characters, why this time around?”
Overall, I thought this was a superb read. The mix of a tragically likable character who is haunted by the death of the two guys he loved as a teenager, plus a string of paranormal whack job characters that viscerally illustrate how not-final death can be was stunning. Kel’s romantic connection to Tomas and June was delightful; it sustained his half-life and ultimately helped him help himself. The convoluted truth about dying was meted out in a way that kept me turning pages, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. For readers who love page turners, high drama, a good dash of horror (body horror and plain old terror), ride-or-die friendships, and unfathomably happy endings (!), I cannot recommend this book enough.