In Paul Guernsey’s novel “American Ghost,” most of the good guys are dead.

For the main story concerns Danny “Thumb” Rivera’s efforts to figure out who killed him. In his “heartbeat days” as a living human, Thumb was a small-time pot dealer who was smarter than most of the people around him (his other nickname is “Brains”), not too ambitious, and, if the narrative can be believed, a personable, ethical, all-around nice young guy. Whether the narrative can be believed, we’ll get to momentarily.

In Thumb’s afterlife world, human personalities permanently separated from their bodies are invisibly everywhere, and a good deal of the narrative is spent describing their everyday lives. They encounter each other sort of randomly and form little groups of friends who communicate freely (in a mode that’s best described in most passages as lighthearted banter) about the frustrating limitations of being dead and the actions of the living, whom they monitor closely. They teach each other how to shape-shift and navigate — solid objects such as walls are no impediment, rain and snow filter vividly through their ghost-bodies, but fascinatingly, getting from Point A to Point B in space can be tricky, and some places are not accessible to certain ghosts at all.

Thumb, after receiving a didactic visitation from a mystery spirit early in the story, is keeping close track of his little group of pot-dealing friends, including his girlfriend, Cricket, whom he misses painfully, and a local biker gang, the Blood Eagles. The Blood Eagles, especially their leader, Dirt, are dangerous dudes who had picked a fight with Thumb, ostensibly over drug-dealing territories. Thumb is pretty sure they’re responsible for his death, but he’s unsure who brought it about.

How we know all this is complicated. While most of the narrative consists of Thumb describing ghost interactions and piecing together recollections from life, a subplot develops concerning Ben, a young writer who started fooling around with a ouija board one day and contacted Thumb the ghost. They work out a communication system (which seems to bear resemblances to the poet W.B. Yeats’s real-life relationship to spirits through his wife’s automatic writing). Ben, who is referred to at one point as an “amanuensis,” starts recording reams of ouija conversations through which he hopes to help Thumb by turning it all into a narrative proper, but doesn’t really know how. So he visits a professional writer, Fred Muttkowski, who literally lives amid a pig sty. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Fred acts a lot like egomaniacal creative writing professors I’ve known, first snubbing young Ben, then requiring pointless, fastidious, fairy-tale-like tasks of him before agreeing to tutor him. The pig sty is a nice metaphor.

Anyway, Fred eventually steals Ben’s rough work and ends up being the writer of the story we are reading. Not the actual writer, mind you, since the actual writer is Paul Guernsey, the novelist and Unity College writing instructor who lives in Warren. And who on the book’s acknowledgments page thanks Daniel “Thumb” Rivera for his role “in the creation of this work.” Ben, meanwhile, gets bored and goes back to playing video games.


The story of who killed Thumb and why is the main plot, and the overall tenor of this book makes it suitable reading for teenagers as well as adults — up to the end, perhaps. Because interestingly, the underlying facts about what motivates Dirt and the Blood Eagles is not revealed until very late, and it is some genuinely nasty, R-rated stuff, in contrast to the mainly bantering, bemused, sometimes wistful overall tone of the narrative. Whose responsibility that tone is, we don’t really know — Thumb, Ben, Fred or Paul. Anyway, in the end, Thumb and several of his ghostly compatriots contrive plans to set things right and move on, as it were.

“American Ghost” is a good, quick and quirky read. You can believe whatever you want about ghosts and the ontological status of fictional and authorial personae — not to mention readers — and still get a kick out of this craftily written book.

This novel, by the way, eventually won the 2018 Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance-sponsored Literary Award in Speculative Fiction, after the original winner, “Ka” by John Crowley, was discovered to be ineligible for the contest. “American Ghost” had been a runner-up.

Paul Guernsey’s previous books include the novels “Unhallowed Ground” and “Angel Falls,” and “Beyond Catch & Release: Exploring the Future of Fly Fishing.” He also operates the website “The Ghost Story” which features online fiction and a fiction contest.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first Thursday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at

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