I’ve recently discovered Marcus Zusak, an Australian writer. The two books I’ve read are very different (The Book Thief is historical fiction), but both share an offbeat, intelligent humor. I Am the Messenger is a contemporary realistic fiction novel that explores what it means to truly live—not just exist from day to day. One of the themes of the books is that anyone, no matter how ordinary, can overcome and achieve by learning to care.
I Am the Messenger tells the story of Ed Kennedy, your classic slacker and the obvious example of ordinariness. Ed’s life consists of driving a taxi, playing cards with his friends, hanging out with his dog Doorman, and having a secret crush on his best friend Audrey. He seems destined to grow up just like his father (as his mother bitterly complains)—a complete loser who accomplishes nothing in life.
All that changes the day Ed interrupts an incompetent bank robber and becomes an unlikely hero. At the trial, the bank robber tells Ed, “You’re a dead man…Remember it everyday when you look in the mirror. A dead man.” (Zusak 38). Is it a threat or just a simple statement of fact?
Zusak creates the rest of the plot around random playing cards (all aces) that arrive in Ed’s life after the bank robbery. It seems random at first, but it matches the randomness of Ed’s life so far. He has been just drifting along, letting life happen to him. The first card is the ace of diamonds with four addresses on it. The rest of the aces follow in turn, each with its own cryptic clues. What is Ed supposed to do with these assignments? As Ed struggles to figure it out, he learns that he is supposed to see and to care. Some of the assignments are easy: to cheer on a girl who runs, to buy ice cream for a single mom, to string up Christmas lights for a family, to visit a lonely widow. Others are more difficult: to confront (or kill) an abusive husband, to be beaten up by fighting brothers. The most difficult ones are the ones that come close to home. The ace of hearts directs him to Marv, Ritchie, and Audrey. How much does he really know about his best friends?
Ed’s quirky voice throughout the book holds the seemingly random events together. Ed is clueless and so are we. Ed’s confidence grows as he succeeds at the cards’ assignments, but he still seems unsure—especially about why he was chosen. Here Ed shows his new confidence in his life before the cards deliver one last surprise.
Twelve messages have been delivered. Four aces have been completed. This feels like the greatest day of my life. I’m alive, I think. I won. I feel freedom for the first time in months, and an air of contentedness wanders next to me all the way home. It even remains as I walk through the front door, kiss the Doorman, and make us some coffee in the kitchen. We’re halfway through it when another feeling finds its way to my stomach, winds up, and spills. I don’t know why I feel it, but any contentment vanishes instantly as the Doorman looks up at me. We hear a latch open and shut from outside and a person rush off. * * * I walk slowly out the door, down the porch steps, and onto the front yard. My letter box stands there. Slightly crooked. It looks guilty. My heart shakes. I walk on and shudder as I open the letter box. Oh no, I think. No, no. No! My hands reach in and my fingers take hold of one last envelope. My names’ on it, and inside I can already see it. There’s one last card. One last address. I close my eyes and fall to my knees on my front lawn. My thoughts stammer. One last card. Without thinking, I gradually open the envelope, and when my eyes find the address, all thoughts are cut down and left there to die. It reads: 26 Shipping Street The address is my address. The last message is for me (Zusak 353).
This passage shows Ed’s unique way of seeing the world and reflecting on it. Zusak combines Ed’s thoughts with surprising physical description and reaction. This voice carries through the entire novel and often made me laugh.
The ending left me confused at first. I had to read it twice to make any sense of it at all, and it still leaves me asking questions. Zusak never clearly answers—for Ed or the reader—who is behind the cards. Like Ed, I was left wondering who is really in charge of his life. Is there someone out there writing the script for him to live? Or is Ed a lesson to us all? If Ed can rise up and learn to care, maybe there is hope for everyone “to live beyond what they’re capable of” (Zusak 353). I think I like being left asking these questions that reflect important themes. I like being able to search for my own answers.
Zusak’s language did take some getting used to. As an Australian writer, he uses some phrases my American ears did not know. For example, a slippery dip is a slide. I also had to adjust to Christmas (December) being hot instead of snowy. Overall, though, the Australian words didn’t interfere with my understanding. They just gave more flavor to Ed’s voice.
I’m looking forward to reading Zusak’s other books. I’m definitely adding him to my favorite young adult authors.