Thursday, December 07, 2006

REVIEW: Sway by Mike Preston


Stan Johnson has never connected with another human being. And that’s fine with him. Stan just wants to be left alone. He buys a small house in the middle of nowhere to pursue this dream.

But Stan’s new home comes with a companion: the spirit of a primitive (and not very bright) warrior. The ghost (who Stan calls Tonto) likes loud noises. He likes watching bad television. He likes starting fights.

In short, Stan and Tonto have nothing in common. But Tonto won’t go away.

Now on death row, Stan recounts the story of their relationship – and its murderous consequences.


Sway is a twisted update of the old “Little Miss Marker” (or “Punky Brewster”) story. Traditionally, an adorable child redeems a grumpy recluse through the gift of love. Here, the "adorable child" role is filled by a slovenly, loud, and violent (not to mention hirsute) ghost. And rather than an appreciation for life, the characters’ relationship leads to serial murder and animal mutilation.

Surprisingly, the story remains as heartwarming as ever.

Sway is a comedy, which is fortunate. A novel about an unemotional recluse, a petulant ghost, and the murder of the people who come between them, shouldn’t take itself too seriously. Mike Preston, a stand-up comedian, succeeds in pulling a lot of laughs out of the escalating disasters that result from Tonto’s invasion of Stan’s world.

However, Sway is also a love story. Actually, it is two love stories, one platonic and one romantic. First there is the relationship between Stan and Tonto. As improbable as it may sound, the story of how these two lonely souls, who cannot even communicate with each other, learn to value companionship over continued isolation, is genuinely moving. Second, there is the story of Stan’s burgeoning affair with the checkout woman at his supermarket. Sway is funny, to be sure. But the novel is most memorable for these relationships, and for Stan’s growing realization that he does not want to remain isolated.


Sway’s tone is somewhat inconsistent. For the most part, Preston’s humor blends well with the story of Stan’s two relationships. However, the slapstick (or attempted satire) of the novel’s framing device, in which Stan is hustled by his incompetent death row attorney, is jarring. (As an aside, I realize this is a nitpick, but no one in the United States goes from trial to actual execution within a matter of weeks.) Moreover, although the murder victims are generally unsympathetic, the deaths, though essential to the plot, still stick out a bit awkwardly. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Preston’s relaxed and conversational style, and do not hesitate to recommend the novel as a whole.


Sway is available from iUniverse (and Amazon). As far as I can tell, Mike Preston does not have his own website, although a small amount of information about him is available here.


“Miserable Girl” by I Hate This Place is a bouncy synthpop ode to two miserable, misanthropic people coming together to form a somewhat less miserable union. The song never fails to cheer me up. It is available on iTunes on the One More Minute album (which can also be bought in its entirety on CDBaby).

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