Book Review: I Wish I Was Like You by S.P. Miskowski
“You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.”
That’s not a Miskowski quote, but I have a feeling Lee Todd Butcher—fictional crime writer-cum-mentor—would appreciate it. It’s from a little Robert Mitchum flick called Out of the Past—as tough, lean, and funny as anything about tough, lean, and funny people oughta be. I Wish I Was Like You pulls a lot from the storied tradition of bad people and worse decisions. Our narrator, Greta, would probably toss a quote like that to the gutter itself—lit cigarette fit between a sneer and everything—but when you deal with tough, lean, and funny, you get what you get.
S.P. Miskowski’s second novel isn’t any one thing though, and that might just be why it succeeds. It’s a mystery, a hardboiled noir, a horror story, a workplace memoir, and a coming of age story. But, it’s also a snapshot of a city and a generation caught in motion-blur. Seattle is suddenly happening, punk rock has grown up and so have the people who were raised on it. The city has become a tech mecca. In a blink of an eye, the whole world’s eyes are on a Northwestern logging town. Whether it be for Nirvana or Microsoft, people are watching.
As a Pacific Northwestern and more specifically, a Washingtonian (but only barely), I found this angle the most captivating. Seattle is a city I’ve visited—I’ve walked its streets and I’ve seen its white table cloth brewpubs and beautiful buildings underneath a never-ending slate grey sky. There’s always a little rivalry between Portland and Seattle, one being the scrappier cousin of the other—but in I Wish I Was Like You, Miskowski takes us back to when Seattle hadn’t yet been completely taken over by big money and high-minded taste. This was a different city, gritty and wet and filled with folks clawing to be anything. It’s the same cultural, generational angst that gave us Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, and while I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Greta would be too cool to identify with either of them (as she is with Nirvana, despite the title coming from a lyric), she represents the same anxious, punk-adjacent, slacker archetype.
The story opens with a quote from Lee Todd Butcher, Greta’s former writing mentor and lover. Miskowski gives us instantaneous insight into Greta’s character as the story opens with a quote from Butcher, advising in his hardboiled no-bullshit way, to never open a story with a dead body. Greta, telling her own story in first person, does exactly that. That being more than interesting enough, she realizes it’s her own. To throw salt in the wound, her death has been ruled a suicide and in the wake of Cobain’s death it means her legacy has become that of a grunge die-hard who died as tribute to her savior. In response, as any tough-as-nails hero would, she smokes a cigarette and vows to solve her own murder.
Along the way, we go back to her shitty Eastern Washington town (again, there’s a little recognition here—as I spent part of my own youth in a shitty Eastern Washington town) where we see her as disaffected and directionless as ever, until she meets Lee Todd Butcher and decides to take his women-can’t-write-crime spiels as a challenge. This part of the story cements a lot of key elements to Greta’s character, as well as introducing Butcher, who, whether present or not, is a felt presence for a lot of the novel—if only to give Greta rules worth rebelling against.
Eventually, she moves to Seattle and this is the meat of the story—her rise from photocopier to real writer, covering theater reviews for anemic, un-cool newspaper Boom City. We watch her rise and fall and eventual death, all against the backdrop of a Seattle where the notion of cool has become a new and exciting currency.
The horror element here comes through in eerie vignettes, where present-day, that is, dead Greta, goes about her time as a ghost of Seattle—hanging out on public transportation, visiting old haunts, and pushing people in their most desperate moments to their demise. These moments of horror force us to know our narrator in ways we’d sometimes rather not, revealing her, even in death, as someone holding her bile close to her heart.
This Is Horror awarded I Wish I Was Like You Novel of the Year, 2017, with good reason too. S.P. Miskowski has crafted an excellent novel that manages to intrigue as well as it scares, and it does so with expertly written, complex characters. It gives credence to a thousand think-pieces written on this new wave of post-horror, where genre is a starting point but not necessarily the point. I Wish I Was Like You is a page-turner where momentum is built on a time and place, and what that time and place does to people