Book Review: The Next Time I Die by Jason Starr

A paranoid thriller in the tradition of Philip K. Dick and The Twilight Zone, Jason Starr's The Next Time I Die weaves a web of suspense that leaves you questioning everything. Read on for Brian Green's review!

Part of why Philip K. Dick’s novels are so effective is how the daring, game-changing sci-fi author juxtaposed the extraordinary with the relatable. Take his 1970 novel A Maze of Death, for instance. The main thrust of that story involves fourteen humans who come to inhabit a mysterious space colony which proves to be treacherous for them. The story is both wildly out there, yet filled with the stuff of basic human affairs. 

 Jason Starr’s new novel, The Next Time I Die, shares this duality. The extraordinary part has to do with a basic questioning of reality as we know it, or at least as one guy knows it. 

At the beginning of the tale, it’s early 2020 and we’re introduced to Steven Blitz, a 47-year-old criminal defense attorney in New York. Blitz is working on a huge case, which has his firm aiming at an insanity defense for a visual artist who’s also a cunning and vicious serial killer. Just days before Blitz is to make his opening statement at trial, his wife Laura angrily informs him that she’s met someone else, is done with him and their marriage, and needs him to exit their Westchester home immediately. Blitz reluctantly packs a few things and sets off on a late-night drive in the snow to his brother’s home, where he plans to stay for at least the next couple of days. But on the way there, he has an incident that leaves him with bodily harm and lands him in the hospital.

And that’s where everything goes nuts.

When Blitz comes to in a hospital bed, he quickly learns that his life, and the state of the world at large, is all different from what he had known before he got hurt. But this isn’t simple amnesia, or a matter of him being in a completely alternate universe. A lot of what’s happening in his life and in the world now is similar to what he’s known. It’s all just been altered in distinct ways. Laura is still his wife, they still live in the same home, and he still works for the same law firm. But the status of his married and family life is significantly different from what he’s known it to be. There’s no serial murder case he’s working on, and his home has changed structurally, etc. Likewise, world events have been twisted around: Al Gore is POTUS; there’s no mounting COVID pandemic; and U.S.-involved nuclear war seems inevitable in Asia. Oh, and Blockbuster Video is a flourishing enterprise, while Netflix is treading water.

When Blitz insists to Laura, his brother, his law partner, and the hospital staff that all these things they keep saying and he keeps hearing about his life and the world around them are wrong, they assume his injury has afflicted his thinking. Knowing they’ll never let him out of the hospital if he keeps protesting, Blitz gets smart and plays along in hopes of being released.

And that’s when things get even more nuts.

As much of a mind-fuck as Blitz experiences while trying to balance the different versions of reality, he’s a guy whose life is full of aspirations and challenges that most of us can understand. Within the different iterations of his existence, he tangles with the ups and downs of marital and family life and of trying to get ahead in his profession. He has friendships, various levels of relations with people at his work, sexual attractions to women other than his spouse, and he knows the highs and lows of being a sports fan who cheers for certain teams. 

Blitz is a lot like the lead characters in previous Starr noir novels like Cold Caller (1998), Twisted City (2004), and Fugitive Red (2018), in that he’s a man whose personal world is imploding, sending him into a downward-spiraling crisis that forces him into extreme actions. Like the other protagonists, Blitz’s current problems are partly due to his own misdeeds and partly brought on by the fact that he’s having a run of spectacularly bad fortune. Of course, those other guys might see their problems as manageable compared to Blitz’s; at least they only had to reckon with the difficulties presented by their one life, not different versions of it.

What also attaches The Next Time I Die to Starr’s earlier noir novels is its hard-edged intensity, as well as the hellfire-level depths to which the lead character’s predicaments plunge. And yet, while this new book will sound and feel like Jason Starr to his longtime readers, there are clear leaps the author’s taken that set The Next Time I Die apart from his previous work.  The time-tripping, reality-questioning aspects of the story put it on an abstract plane that’s new for Starr’s noir writing. 

Because this book is a suspense novel, it’s best that a review not delve into details of its plot beyond the basic premise described above. But suffice to say that it’s an adrenaline rush of a read that’s exhilarating, frightening, violent, hallucinatory, and I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened shock-inducing. In other words, it’s a noir novel by Jason Starr. And yet it’s mind-bending in ways that render it a leap for him.

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