Normally I'm not beguiled by first-person narratives, especially when the voice is that of an obnoxious boorish narcissist. Mykle Hansen's HELP! A Bear is Eating Me! is an honorable exception. Despite having a protagonist of unparalleled loathsomeness, unblemished by even a hint of concern for others or a scintilla of self-awareness, this book charmed the pants off me. The title is sheer genius, and completely accurate. As the story opens, its truly despicable antihero, Marv Pushkin lies pinned under his all-terrain vehicle somewhere off-road in Alaska. The rest of the 120-page story is structured as an ongoing monolog from Marv to the reader.
If you think about it for a second, you realise that Mykle Hansen set himself a nearly impossible challenge. A first-person narrative in the voice of a complete jerk that still manages to engage the reader is a pretty tall order. I'm happy to report that the author rises to the occasion, magnificently. I read H! ABiEM! in a single afternoon. It was hilarious. And written so smoothly that you ask yourself "how did he do that?"
Lying trapped and helpless isn't the only trial Marv has to survive. There's that angry bear whose cub he ran over with his Rover who takes revenge by gnawing off his extremities. He also suffers several hallucinatory visitations, both human and ursine, as he self-medicates to counter the mounting pain. This makes him the quintessential unreliable narrator.
The character of Marv works as a (hilarious) caricature, but the thought does occur that Hansen may have sacrificed the potential for greater emotional impact by making him so relentlessly loathsome. Most readers will be ambivalent on whether to root for the bear or for Marv. Scrooge's four ghostly visitors ultimately cause him to undergo a change of heart. Lear's misadventures in the storm teach him compassion and effect a reconciliation with Cordelia before he dies; Gloucester learns to see more clearly as a result of his blinding.
HELP! A Bear is Eating Me! is not a story of growth and redemption. But so what? It's brilliantly realised and genuinely, hilariously funny.
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