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September 11, 2008 / schulerbooks

Ghost Radio, by Leopoldo Gout

Have you ever started a story, and gotten most of the way through it, before realizing that the story you THOUGHT you were reading wasn’t the real story, after all? When it’s done well, it’s great. When it’s not done so well, it’s disappointing.

And that’s why, ultimately, I have to declare Leopoldo Gout’s first novel, “Ghost Radio,” a disappointment. In spite of a strong and compelling start, and a good central cast of characters, what started off as complex and multi-layered wound up as convoluted and overly-broad, almost self-indulgent.

The premise is great: a radio DJ with a tragic past has a great, local show called “Ghost Radio,” where he invites listeners to call up with their own, true ghost stories. After years of modest success, he’s got an offer to take his show from Mexico to America — to go from the fringe to popular culture. But at the same time, his sense of reality seems to be shifting apart: tossed between what was, what is and what could have been.

His past seems to hold answers: the mysterious death of his friend, Gabriel, with whom he shared an earlier, tragic bond, seems to have sent echoes forward, chasing him. But what happened that night, so long ago, when they broke into a radio station to play their idiosyncratic punk rock to the masses? Did something ELSE get set into motion, then? And if so, what?

The first two thirds of “Ghost Radio” sets up a marvelously complex and compelling list of questions. Unfortunately, the crucial third act of the book proves to be a major disappointment. The novel becomes less of a ghost story and more of a science fiction tale about alternate realities, and what happens when you get written out of your own world. Not all of the balls that the author threw up in the air are caught on the way down, and those that are seem to have been collected by the wrong hand, by the tips of the fingers.

As a result, the ending is weird, counter-intuitive and ultimately unsatisfying. And that’s a real shame, as I feel the book had a lot of potential.

If you’d like to read a contemporary ghost story that actually IS a ghost story, I recommend “Heart Shaped Box” by Joe Hill, and “Firefly Rain” by Richard Dansky. While the latter might be slow and syrupy by some standards (being Southern Gothic) and the former isn’t without flaws (Hill doesn’t know how to start or finish his story, but the meat is excellent, “can’t put it down” stuff) both authors actually end the story they started, as opposed to leaving you stranded in white noise, searching for substance in the crackles between stations, like Ghost Radio does.

(Reviewed by Jim Tremlett)

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