An entertaining protagonist pursues big questions after heartbreak.

“The Life of the World to Come” begins at the end. The reader is swiftly brought up to speed on Leo Brice’s charming but ungrounded relationship with Fiona Haeberle. Then, at the culmination of Chapter 1, it’s over. Fiona leaves, unceremoniously, and what follows is, as Leo puts it, “an epilogue.”

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The epilogue covers a lot of ground. Leo explores the afterlife through his relationship with a death row inmate. He charts new territory in communication with his housemates – an aging abuela and her dog. And he struggles with love – what it means, what it meant, what it could be.

Leo is a sharp, entertaining and melodramatic narrator. Sometimes, his hyperbolic statements border on irritating, but only because they’re real and familiar, the kind of familiar that’s uncomfortable to look at: “I was blown open when she left – blown open, and I couldn’t get closed. Everybody knows that, when you’re talking about a person, open things can get infected and closed things cannot. That’s basic medical science. And I lay there, open, taking in all the world’s bacteria.”

Writer Dan Cluchey tells a good story. He was born in Portland and, like his protagonist, graduated from law school. He was a speechwriter and adviser for the Obama administration. As a fiction writer, he scales vast ideas with levity and speed. He is adept at playing with words and their meanings, but it never distracts from the narrative. It only drives us deeper into Leo’s mind and a world where each sentence entertains.

Words become a parallel to the story, a way of highlighting Leo’s challenges and lessons. When considering Michael Tiegs, the inmate on death row, Leo says, “Now think of two people, and all of the damage that words can do. Contronyms carry their inner tension the same way that we carry ours, hunched on the fulcrum of context.… Michael Tiegs was about to change his meaning, maybe. For the scant months I’d known him, the words of his name had always been wholly attached to a living person – but here, now, he was poised at any moment to mean the precise opposite of that.”

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Michael Tiegs is the perfect counterpart to Leo’s desperate philosophical wonderings. The two meet when Leo is assigned to Michael’s case by The New Salem Institute, a nonprofit advocacy organization that provides legal support to death row inmates.

In the decade since he arrived in prison, Michael had read every book in the library and studied the history of world religions. He is neutral on the subject of his case and whether death will come sooner or later.

Michael provides Leo with an external release to the conversations going on in his head. As Leo says, “I was growing increasingly certain we shared questions.… We shared, at the very least, some fundamental mystery; we were dying to understand.”

In the end, Leo understands that he doesn’t get to know. What he does get, as narrator, is the ability to track the themes that he has uncovered in his epilogue, unveiling small but potent lessons for the reader.

He leaves us wondering about big questions even as we are satisfied by a surprising, well-crafted story.

“This is not the version where everything is okay.” Leo says. “This is the version where I ask if there is a version where everything is okay.”

Heidi Sistare is a freelance writer who lives in Portland. Contact her at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @heidisistare

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