cover starfish

Author: Allen Callaci
Publisher: Pelekinesis
Binding: paperback, 238 pp.

This is a story without an arc. There are no ghosts of past, present, and future floating through an open window gently reminding each and every reader of what it is that matters most in life to be found here.

So writes Allen Callaci in his debut novel, Heart Like a Starfish, a personal memoir of his near-death experience and the heart transplant it necessitated. As I read it, I wondered if this would actually prove to be true, or if there was indeed some sort of twist ending, or moral, or anything even resembling a dénouement insidiously waiting for me on the last page. In fact, there is not, and the account is all the better for it.

We have a tendency to demand too much of our literature. We expect characters to follow “developmental arcs”; we insist that “plot holes” be properly filled; we tolerate only so much coincidence and dumb luck. In fiction, perhaps this formulaic approach is acceptable. But we sometimes demand the formula so much that too many supposed “memoirs” or “accounts” quickly become embellished at best, entirely fantastical at worse. (How many film trailers now tout this bogus slogan “based on actual events” or some such nonsense?) It’s important to remember that real life doesn’t doesn’t follow the rules of literary theory or any sort of formula. Real life is sloppy, illogical, formless, and senseless, and it is precisely because of this that it is entirely wonderful.

Callaci’s is a story of real life, and of his personal return from the very precipice of that life. He promises not to cave in to the pressures of formulaic writing, and he keeps his promise. By trade, he is a librarian, a small-time rock and roll singer, and a community college English professor, but above all these labels (and why this particular author would be featured on this particular blog), Allen Callaci is a geek.

I’ve never been one for doctors except for Dr. Seuss, Dr. Who and Dr. Bones McCoy from the original Star Trek series, but as I gaze at my colorless reflection in the tiny medicine cabinet mirror I know I’m in need of some serious medical attention.

References like this abound. They don’t dominate the narrative—it isn’t fan fiction. It’s simply a few evenings spent with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time, as he recounts a horrific and regenerative personal experience in a vernacular you both use. And he does so very naturally and in a non-linear fashion, much the way we recount any of our own memories: like frames on the movie screen in our mind, all in the wrong order.

Heart Like a Starfish is unknowingly and unintentionally profound. It makes no claim to moralize or philosophize, but in a fashion after Kurt Vonnegut, the discombobulated parts are all there for the readers to assemble themselves.

I get called a miracle a lot these days… But what does being a miracle mean? I still take out the trash. Do the laundry. Forget to make the bed most mornings. Laugh out loud at old episodes of Beavis and Butthead. That can’t be what being a miracle means.

And yet, this passage resonated deeply with me and my own Buddhist inclinations, for this is exactly what a miracle does look like—or so I’ve come to believe. Furthermore, and perhaps what is most important about this book: Callaci presents his fellow geeks with a cautionary tale. It’s no secret that a significant portion of the geek community are not exactly in the best physical health. Not everybody is Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, but there are enough of us who are to justify the stereotype. Despite Callaci’s claim that “there are no ghosts of past, present, and future” in this work, he nonetheless plays (however unknowingly or unintentionally) the Ghost of Christmas Future to the reader’s Ebenezer Scrooge. He says to the reader: “I am like you, and you mustn’t live like I did, lest your heart fail and you nearly die. Sure—I survived, but it was a miracle, after all. Geekdom is wonderful and fun, but don’t let it destroy your relationships with others… or with yourself.”

That’s what I got out of it, anyway, whether he meant for me to or not.

Heart Like a Starfish will be released on May the 4th (Star Wars Day). You can order a copy at Portions of the proceeds will be going towards the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute.

full disclosure: I requested and received an advance copy of the book for review;
no payment of any kind was exchanged.

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