Say Not What If by Andrew Friedman

You reap what you sow. 

The book in one sentence: When your life choices flash back when you are facing certain death.

My thoughts: When the author approached me with his book Say Not What If, I read the summary and didn't have any illusions because of its length. I felt that it would be a challenging read,  mainly because it's a poem. This is my first read for 2012, and I think the subject matter is so very apt!

Here's a quick summary:

Say Not What If” is a short story about a man on death row. The story is written as a long rhyming poem, and its primary theme is that time is our most valuable commodity. As someone once said, “waste anything but time, because we really are promised no tomorrows.” This theme is explored through the life of the protagonist, a man who sacrifices his marriage and everything else for his career. He realizes much too late the terrible consequences of this decision, and then desperately tries to regain those lost years by making a much worse choice. The resolution of this latter choice involves an additional examination of the concepts of accountability and responsibility, redemption, and the morality of the death penalty.

Friedman wants to stress that he wrote this book about the inevitability of the passage of time:
... my greatest hope is that if you are experiencing a similar struggle about the loss of time or anything else, that the story provides you with some answers and some solace. We all occasionally need someone to show us a way out of our own darkness. Merely writing the story has been a light and a beacon for me. I hope it will be for you as well.

Ok, as it's only 51 pages, you would think it a cinch to read. But the style - which is basically a very long poem of about 10,000 words - was definitely out of my comfort zone! I struggle with poetry in general (rhymes seem to hurt my head), and usually tackle it in quick bursts over a longer period of time. Which is why I did the same with this book: I started it in mid-November, and had quite a few false starts.

But I had a pleasant surprise. During one of the long holiday weekend, I plopped down on the couch and read it in full. Once I started and got into the rhythm, I found that I could actually settle down and enjoy story!

! Spoilers from this point on !

The story: a man buries himself in work, and before too long, his marriage crumbles and he learns he has an incurable illness. Sinking into a depression, he bargains with the gods of fate for his life. He is offered an ultimatum and his desperation leads him to take another's life: a child. He ends up on death row. He suffers even more at the hands of his fellow prisoners, finds out he has contracted AIDs, and he starts to see no end to his wretchedness. He gives up hope with his appeal, and in life in general, and he attempts to take his life. He is brought back to saneness by his doctor and he tries to make something of himself. But the wheels of justice have turned and there is no escaping his inevitable death sentence.

The themes tackled are universal and timeless. Friedman highlights that "time is our most valuable commodity." However, I see the overriding theme to be something much more fundamental: you reap what you sow. The man in the story reaped the consequences of the decisions he had made in his life: career over marriage = failed marriage, murder = prison.  Life doesn't really deviate from this simple rule, and this story simply underscores that in a most unique way.

By far my favourite part is the whole scene at the golden gates of heaven. Our protagonist comes face to face with the child he had killed. What follows is a touching first-person account of the life that could have been - from her poverty-stricken childhood, to her mother's sacrifices so she could get an education, and eventually her marriage, her children, and the life she makes for herself and living to a ripe old age. I could truly empathize with the victim.


On the other hand, it is very difficult to empathize with the protagonist as he was so obviously guilty. I don't quite understand the psychology behind his final decision to the heinous deed when he was initially repulsed by the idea of killing.

What evil is this, what awful strife
I must kill child to save my life?
The very thought makes me ill.
I'd rather take a poison pill.
Killing is against my will.
The chance therefore of this is nil.
- p. 11

What pushed him over the edge?  Two stanzas down he is ready to do the fates' bidding and wanting to hold them to their end of the deal! With my empathy for the victim, the least I wanted was to feel something, anything for the protagonist! I feel that this would have been quite the interesting study.

The story also touches upon the morality of the death penalty and brings up the longstanding debate about whether capital punishment is an actual deterrent to crime, and of how this impacts on those who are wrongly accused. This is a debate raised by his lawyer, and does not go into much depth though it will definitely get you thinking.

There are very strong religious references to heaven, hell, angels, sin ... this may rile a few people up. Friedman also implies that another consequence is in another life where murder = hell and eternal suffering. Moreover, our man is denied entry into heaven with no absolutely chance of redemption. Pretty grim all around.

I must reiterate: all this is is rhyme! I am impressed with how Andrew Friedman was able to pull together a coherent, rhyming poem! However, there are some odd times when the rhymes seemed stilted and forced, and here is where the form dictated the content - to the content's detriment. I feel that he could have let slip the rhymes in some places so that the thought could better be conveyed.

Verdict: A rewarding and unusual one-hour read to ruminate about life's choices.


First lines:
Say not "what if or wonder why
About all the things you did not try.
Say not "what if" or be heard or to sigh
With a trembling voice and a tear in your eye
"Why did I let time go by?"

To read more about Andrew Friedman's story behind his story at:

I received this book in exchange for an honest review. 

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall