Every time Tom Piccirilli puts the proverbial pen to paper, he spills his guts out. He just can’t help himself. It’s the kind of writer he is. He is not the kind of writer who assembles classically structured, easily categorized product. He’s the kind of writer whose stories feel more like confessions. Or, perhaps, cries for help.
It’s what makes him unique. It’s what makes him so damn good.
What Makes You Die is, perhaps, his most intensely personal work in a long line of intensely personal works. The author is not being coy about the fact that this particular tale hits close to home – the hero’s name is Tommy Pic, for crying out loud. And he’s a writer – of screenplays rather than prose, but what’s the difference? He’s a guy who makes a living pouring his heart into projects that are then sent out into the world to be edited, watered-down, skimmed over, and often misunderstood. Tommy Pic is a man for whom writing is such a part of himself that, lately, he can’t remember doing it – and yet, somehow, he’s turning out a script that his agent says may be the thing that resurrects Pic’s once promising career.
As of now, Pic’s claim to fame is a series of low budget monster movies that got progressively goofier and cheesier as he churned them out. Even that well has dried up, and he’s moved back home from Hollywood, hiding out in his mother’s basement and crumbling under the weight of the ghosts that hound him. There are many, including his dead father and brother, and his childhood love, Kathy, and something that identifies itself as a Komodo dragon. That one lives in his gut and occasionally leaves him cryptic messages on Post-It Notes. Tommy tried to cut it out once, but he didn’t succeed.
How much of this story is real, and how much is in Tommy Pic’s head? And how much of it is real to Tom Piccirilli, who is both passionate and haunted by his own work? There’s a section in the middle of the book in which Tommy Pic has found himself the guest of honor at a meeting of a high school cinema club. Piccirilli presents this portion of the book in screenplay format, and in it Tommy Pic is answering questions about the themes of his work, and the reasons why he puts so much of himself into the things he writes. Reading this section was like reading an interview with Piccirilli, who’s expressed many of the same thoughts and theories as his character does here in interviews of his own. It’s a moment that they call “breaking the fourth wall” when it happens on film or television. It’s that point when a character looks out of the screen and right at you and says, “Let’s cut the BS and really talk, okay?” I’ve got that feeling from Piccirilli’s work before, but it’s never been this blatant.
What Makes You Die is a hard book to review because it defies any sort of comparison. It’s horrific at times, but it’s not horror. It’s semi-autobiographical, maybe, but then again who knows? There’s a mystery at the heart of it all, the question of what happened to a little girl on a dreary afternoon many years ago, but that’s not really the point. It’s Tom Piccirilli through-and-through, and if that means something to you, you’ll know what I mean. If not, this is as good a place to start learning as any.
It’s not easy watching a man exorcise his own demons for all the world to see. It’s messy and ugly and brutal and painfully honest. That’s as good a description as I can come up with for this book, and for the large majority of Tom Piccirilli’s work. If that’s the kind of book you like to get lost in, then you’ve come to the right place.