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Book Review: The Thing About Life Is One Day You’ll Be Dead by David Shields

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David Shields’ brilliant memoir/reflection, now out in paperback, is the perfect antidote to careless and frivolous summer reading. Although it’s eminently readable, the book is a fascinating combination of personal history, facts about life, death, love, sex, and just about everything else you can think of, and may well provide a jump start for your autumn serious thinking – without completely letting your brain rot this summer.

The national bestselling book may have slipped under the radar of many readers. Its title is not, perhaps, the most encouraging. But it’s true and author Shields seems bent on telling the truth – no matter how hard it is to take (for him, his father, the other subject of the book, or the audience).

What Shields does that is so wonderfully effective is to contrast his own, somewhat cranky middle-aged self, with his father who, in his late nineties, is only just beginning to slow down. Part roué, part rake, all man, Shield’s father’s lust for life both baffles and impresses his son and the author sets out in The Thing About Life Is One Day You'll Be Dead to explore the similarities and the differences between his father and himself, as well to examine the fragile nature of life itself. “Let the wrestling match begin: my stories versus his stories,” the book opens.

In the midst of his storytelling, Shields takes the adventurous route of detailing all kinds of things about all kinds of things, which could be tedious but winds up being absolutely fascinating. Where else could one learn that we share 99.9 percent of our genes with everyone else in the world, the details of octopus breeding, your IQ is highest between the ages of 18 and 25, and no one knows what causes puberty to begin. He also tells the reader that “As soon as your reproductive role has been accomplished, you’re disposable…Once a body’s mission is accomplished, nature has little interest in what happens next.” Nature, perhaps, but both Shield’s interest is in everything that happens first, second, third, next, and on until the end. And his research is prodigous.

The book is divided into four sections which carry us from infancy till death, and in those sections Shield’s chapters range from Decline and Fall (three entries) to Sex and Death (four entries) to Boys and Girls (four entries) to the improbable Hoop Dreams and hysterical Bloodline to Star Power where Shields traces his father’s obsession with an actor who he thinks bears the same original family name.

Shields is at his best when parsing the information he gathers and when revealing the foibles of self. In one musing on a former lover with herpes, he writes: “For a multitude of reasons, the two of us didn’t belong together, but what interests me now is what, for lack of a better term, the free-floating signifier the virus was. When I was in love with her, it eroticized her. When I wasn’t, it repelled me. The body has no meanings. We bring meanings to it.”

And Shields does just that. Brings meaning to his own body, that of his aged father, also a writer (and whose writing peppers the book), and to the notions of life and death itself.

Moreover, bon mots like “Pain is inevitable… suffering is optional,” and this sagacity from American newspaper columnist Don Marquis (who died at 59): “Forty and forty-five are bad enough, fifty is simply hell to face; fifteen minutes after that you are sixty; and then in ten more minutes you are eighty five,” liven up the book and make the reader smile with delight.

I happen to know that David Shields is the same age as I am (53 now, although he was 50 when he began writing the book) as we went to college together and, I think, might have even shared a writing class. But buyer beware, I don’t know him at all, and I read his book with a stranger’s curiosity, wonder, and eventual delight. Shields is an interesting man who has lived an interesting life, as has his father, and both men have delightful, insightful and meaningful stories to share with us. The Thing About Life is poignant without being sappy or sentimental, serious and funny at the same time, and all about the life lessons we are taught when dealing with the truth of death.

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About Lisa Solod