When I tell you that Francisco X. Stork’s The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is a story about the meaning of life, I’m not kidding. I'm not making a dramatic statement just to be dramatic and make you want to rush out and get your hands on this book. The best way to describe the story is to say that it explores the meaning of life. In his novel, Stork’s two main characters wrestle with their inner demons and try to answer some of life’s biggest questions: What is my purpose? How should I live? What matters most? This is not a reading experience for someone who needs action on every page. It’s for readers who appreciate subtlety, who like to think about characters’ motivations, who enjoy reading authentic conversations and for whom watching the growth of character happening throughout the narrative is just as compelling as nail-biting scenarios or intricate mysteries. It's a beauty, in a quiet "I could be a great indie movie" type of way.
After the deaths of his father and his sister in the span of just a couple of months, seventeen-year-old Pancho ends up at a Catholic orphanage. Even though the cause of his sister's death was "undetermined," he can't get the idea out of his head that she was murdered by the guy she was seeing, and he can think of little else besides finding that man and killing him. Revenge is all there is for him. He literally cannot imagine living without avenging his sister's death. Then he meets D.Q., another teen at the orphanage, who is dying of brain cancer. D.Q. is quite a character. He hardly ever stops talking. He has a lot opinions and he is busy working on writing The Death Warrior Manifesto, in which he is attempting to outline how best to live one's life. As soon as he meets Pancho, D.Q. latches onto him and decides that their fates are intertwined. He invites Pancho to go with him to Albuquerque where he'll be getting experimental treatment for his illness, and where he hopes to win the love of a girl he met there named Marisol. Pancho agrees to go with him, but mostly because the journey brings him closer to getting the revenge he is desperate for. Their travels take both young men in directions they hadn't predicted.
One of the many remarkable things about The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is that it doesn’t turn preachy, at any point, even though it is filled up with wisdom for readers to take away. Also, the characters feel real, not like mouth pieces for some kind of message. They talk the way teens would. They relate to one another the way real teens do. You can imagine that two friends going through something like this would act just this way. You believe it. I just loved the idea that often when we're facing something big in our lives (like death) we tend to look for or expect some sort of grand revelation to happen so that we "get it," but that life doesn't usually work that way. There may not be a grand revelation, but there's a good chance you'll still learn something, some small piece of meaning might be found.
I think that The Last Summer of the Death Warriors has the power to change your life a little bit. It's that good, that thoughtful and moving. I think it's part of the answer a lot of us readers seek, a piece of that bigger "something" we wish to understand and that the best stories sometimes offer.
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is published by Arthur A. Levine Books. Go get it.