Today I read Mort Morte by David Henry Sterry. I also took the train to a city 50 kilometers away for a meeting, came back, spent 3 hours working on a couple of Etsy orders, procrastinated with my favourite iPad game and went to the supermarket. And it’s not even 17:00 yet. Why am I mentioning all this? Because I read the whole book during the 90 minutes I spent on trains today!
So, Mort Morte is a short book and a quick read. This, however, does not mean it isn’t enjoyable. It is very enjoyable! Which is interesting, because usually I’m all for thick books. One of my all-time favourite novels is Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, which I seem to recall is 1000+ pages with a tiny font, and which is still not long enough for my taste.
Mort Morte is an entirely different kind of book. Short, poetic and to the point. It tells the story of Mordechai Murgatroid Morte from the age of three to sixteen, as his mother brings home a string of four new husbands after ‘Mort’ shoots his father at age three. Each of the four new husbands is bad news, but Mort is determined to take care of his ‘milky’ mother. The writing style evolves as Mort becomes older, but his voice is nonetheless consistent (and poetic in a prose way) throughout. Especially witty and enjoyable are the popular references, such as: “My indescribably milky mother put on the grief-stricken widow face she kept in the jar by the door”, which of course refers to a famous (and for me inexplicable) line from The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. Sterry is also very witty in his absurd depiction of several cultures, as is perhaps best illustrated in the name of the third, Texan husband: Billy Bob Bobby Joe Willy Dick Bodine.
Reading the book, I was never sure whether to laugh or to cry. Terrible, serious things happen to Mort, but they are described in such a poetic, off-hand and (possibly) humorous way that I found it hard to come up with a response. This makes the book simultaneously dark and light, serious and funny, sad and happy.
I enjoyed the novel more than I had expected. The surreal story, the beautiful language and the quirky characters, make it worth reading. This is why I am giving it four out of five stars. I am not giving five stars for several reasons, most importantly perhaps the ending. The story starts with a bang, but it ends with a whimper. This I found rather disappointing. Nonetheless, I would recommend this book to anyone who has to spend 90 minutes on a train and wants to read something surreal and witty!