To read Rio Youers’ Westlake Soul is to be alternately surprised, amused, delighted and touched, often within the space of a couple of pages. Remarkably inventive and generous of spirit, the book is an open invite – literally, in places – to the reader to kick back, read and enjoy the ruminations of its main character. He’s a hell of a narrator, and he tells a great story.
He’s also the aforementioned Westlake Soul, the world’s greatest psychic mind. Able to zip his consciousness around the planet instantaneously, dive into ocean trenches with whales, and communicate psychically with his dog, Westlake would seem to have it all. Except, of course, for the pesky detail that the surfing accident that gave him these magnificent powers also put him into a coma. For all his cosmic insight, he can’t move a finger or twitch an eyelid, anything to let his family or caretaker know that he’s still in there.
That’s the setup; the book consists of Westlake telling stories – of how he came to be in this state, of his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, of the family dynamics that play out around him as his parents slowly lose hope he will ever recover, and of his psychic battles with the arch-nemesis named Dr. Quietus who wants to drag him down into cold, dark death.
Also, he talks to the dog, and has a bird who only speaks in verse land on his head. It’s that kind of book.
Youers’ narrator knows he’s telling a story to someone, and so the narrative lopes along with an easy familiarity. Framed as a chance for the irrepressible Soul to tell someone what’s really going on, it’s a mix of stories, bad jokes, pop-culture references, and adventures, cross-cut in time and space and concept in precisely the way a hyperactive braniac with nothing to do but think might find himself telling a story. And really, it his story through and through, and the way in which Soul tells it is itself a story of his maturation and final reconciliation with himself.
If there is one minor flaw to the narration, it’s in those references. They’re a little well-seasoned to be the sort of thing a 23 year old would fall back to, but what the hell, if that’s the worst issue with the book, then it’s a very good book indeed. Besides that, the book is side-splittingly funny in places, which would make up for far greater sins than this. When told that Westlake’s brain is like a rotten apple after his surfing accident, his parents get into it with the doctor over precisely what kind of rotten apple it is. One that could be made into cider, perhaps? It’s laugh-out-loud funny, but at the same, it’s deeply moving. Laugh all you want at the apple debate, but the conversation is about two people trying to come to grips with the fact that their son will probably never open his eyes again.
Ontario resident Youers deserves a great deal of praise for the delicate balancing act he pulls off here. Careening from slapstick to heartrending, and sometimes managing both simultaneously, he tugs the heartstrings and tickles the funny bone with equal facility.Westlake Soul should not be missed.