Those are some of the themes explored by David J. Castello in his interesting debut novel, The Diary of an Immortal (1945-1959) (Book Baby; paperback; $17.99; 307 pages).
This book would fit in the category of magical realism (think The Green Mile by Stephen King), and Castello has done his homework to present an improbable — but plausible — story line. If you use your imagination, this book will be an entertaining read.
That’s what Castello did.
“The novel came to me in a series of dreams,” he said. “I couldn’t place the genre to what I’d written until I saw The Green Mile and thought to myself, ‘Whatever genre that movie is, mine is too.’”
Castello tells the story of Steven Ronson, an Army combat medic during World War II who had seen more than his share of death. He has seen 19-year-old soldiers believe they were invincible, even immortal — until their faces are transformed into utter disbelief as bullets cut them down and they realize they are dying.
When Ronson’s outfit liberates the notorious concentration camp at Dachau in April 1945, the young medic makes an incredible discovery — a box of bottled pills that is a 50-year supply of an immortality formula intended for Adolf Hitler.
Ronson takes the pills, consumes them and then embarks on a journey to find himself. He returns to his Florida home after the war ends but soon travels to New York. Suddenly comfortable among the jazz elite in Manhattan, Ronson excels on the saxophone, playing notes that even established stars like Charlie Parker are astounded to hear. He becomes friends with a former British missionary who talks about Buddhist monks in China who have guarded the original immortality formula for centuries. Ronson has a casual interest in that, but is much more enthralled by the missionary’s adopted niece.
I have known Castello for more than 40 years, as we both attended junior high and high school together in South Florida. He graduated a year ahead of me and I was in the same class as his younger brother, Michael. The brothers put together a band during those high school years and were pretty good. They really became successful during the 1990s when the dot-com era emerged, as they bought some key domains, sold a few and maintain some now. Castello is the editor-in-chief and chief operating officer at CCIN (Castello Cities Internet Network); Michael is the CEO and president.
Castello is now based in Nashville and plays drums for Bree, a three-member rock ’n’ roll band named for his wife, who is the group’s lead singer.
The musical subplot in Diary of an Immortal shows Castello’s knowledge of the industry and is an informative read. Sharp-eyed readers might chuckle at the use of Ronson as a last name for the main character, as it appears to be a nod toward the late English guitarist Mick Ronson, who worked with David Bowie during the 1970s.
But “I’ve been writing longer than I’ve been playing drums,” Castello said.
What is striking about Diary of an Immortal is the character development. Steven Ronson is a believable figure, and so are his supporting characters. Jennifer Harrison is a beautiful, sassy, petulant woman who drives her uncle Albert to distraction but has Ronson charmed. Hines Winston is a brassy impresario who wants to hit it big with a band and sees Ronson as his meal ticket.
The characters Ronson encounters in China are interesting, too. A pair of immortals, Chow Li and Chang Sou, provides the tension in the second half of the book. Chow Li is the pacifist teacher, while Chang Sou seeks to dominate the world.
How does one defeat an immortal? Castello presents an interesting scenario, filled with tension and sadness. But the final twist of the book, which is foreshadowed in the opening chapters, is a satisfying finish.
Castello’s research is solid and he presents the reader with some good history about China’s struggles during the 1940s and ’50s.
“I did tons of historical research, almost to the point of obsession,” Castello said.
It pays off in Diary of an Immortal. Castello starts off slowly and picks up the pace as the book moves forward. There are some key moments where the reader might stop and think, “Whoa …” — but that’s the mark of a good writer.
Immortality can be a gift, or it could be a curse. Castello shows the reader both sides of that eternal equation.