Reviewed by: Arthur Graham
Approximate word count: 100,000-105,000
Kindle US: YES UK: YES Nook: NO Smashwords: NO Paper: YES
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According to one source I was able to find online, Hans von Osten is a writer and college instructor living in Utah. Most everything else is in reference to a horse by the same name that lived in Berlin sometime circa 1900. Popularly known as “Clever Hans” for its alleged aptitude for solving complex math equations, perhaps it is no coincidence that Shiver: The Life and Times of a Serial Marrier lists The Clever Horse as its publisher.
Equal parts travelogue, tall tale, and travesty of all things American, Shiver: The Life and Times of a Serial Marrier follows the misadventures of the improbably named “Shiver Me Timbers” across the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. Transformative years for the nation by any measure, spanning wars, natural disasters, and social upheaval of every persuasion, Shiver somehow manages to remain largely unchanged in his single-minded purpose of wedding (and bedding) as many women as he possibly can, resulting in a general plotline that is easily inferred from the book’s title.
With its roguish philanderer of a protagonist, Shiver is a bit of a throwback to the picaresque novels of previous centuries – satirical treatments of rascally men, their exploits, and the unsympathetic societies that attempt to hold them down. In between stints on the lam from Selective Service and the disgruntled wives he continues to accumulate, the title character can be found palling around with leftist revolutionaries, peddling pot to flower children, and working as a logger, sailor, and Christian fundamentalist celebrity speaker. Wherever this disjointed and diverse work history takes him, Shiver repeatedly proves that the one thing he is truly interested in is marrying and/or “diddling” whatever woman will have him – irrespective of age, race, social status, mental capacity, and (in one notable instance) gender.
All of this takes place against a backdrop that should be familiar to anyone well versed in American history (at least the version not taught in school), as the story is intertwined with mostly relevant discussions on everyone and everything from Christopher Columbus and Betsy Ross to Iran-Contra and the first Gulf War. As the tumultuous decades unfold with him inexplicably at the center of it all, the hapless Shiver comes to represent an everyman of sorts, at points feeling reminiscent of a happy-go-lucky, oversexed Forrest Gump.
A healthy dose of magic realism props up the narrative wherever it becomes difficult to maintain the reader’s suspension of disbelief, as when Shiver’s idle promise to love one woman “until pigs fly” proves to be one of the few vows he is actually forced to keep. The unlikely story of Saleem Sinai from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children also comes to mind – try as he may to settle down and lead a normal, decent life, the cruel caprices of fate align to send Shiver packing time and time again.
The remarkably plain cover belies a richly descriptive tale drawn from a broad palette of colors, with strokes of both humor and melancholy and the many shades between. The text might be a little overly verbose at times, and terms like “pusillanimous” and “terpsichorean” make it clear that the author keeps a thesaurus handy at all times. This is usually harnessed to good effect, however, and besides - one should never fault an author for being in possession of a vocabulary!
The story flies by at a pace that sometimes leaves the reader wishing for more, but in advancing the plot without unnecessary delay, von Osten leaves himself ample time to explore the various other tangents making Shiver the unique book that it is. Characters are similarly introduced (and left behind) at a dizzying rate, but they tend to pop back up often enough to remain salient even in their absence.
In perusing the long list of glowing reviews on Amazon, I was surprised to find that not a single one mentions the significant number of typos/usage errors that abound throughout the text (“tracks” vs. “tracts”, “shutter” vs. “shudder”, “differential” vs. “deferential”, etc). Admittedly, these do not take away much from the overall experience, but for me they were prevalent enough to mar an otherwise enjoyable read.
Some readers may find themselves turned off by the protagonist’s bigamist lifestyle, but while Shiver may at times seem like a narcissistic sociopath of truly epic proportions, he never comes across as malicious in his intent, and I for one did not find him particularly hard to like or sympathize with. Like any good fool, Shiver doesn’t take himself seriously enough to garner much disdain. As for the book itself, I ultimately agree with the narrator when he states “to man everything is impossible, but to God (and I would add: modern novelists) nothing is ever too preposterous!”
This book contains a virtual cornucopia of sex and otherwise salacious material.
About a dozen common usage errors and some inconsistent punctuation, most of which could easily be resolved by a second proofing.
Rating: **** Four stars