Part science fiction, part slightly deranged introspective narration on life, Fish Cough is a surreal ride through the special neurosis that accompanies the mid-life crisis of the formerly hopeful and free-spirited while simultaneously wrestling with a literal alien force intent on bending reality to its will. Thom is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon with his husband Howard in the small apartment Thom first moved into when he came to the city as a young man. Unbeknownst to either of them, a meteor shower that occurs every 33 years is about to subtly shift their lives and the lives of those around them into funhouse mirror images of what they were. After the shower, a small meteor becomes wedged in the tree outside their apartment and Thom, already standing on shaky ground in his relationship and feeling stuck and unsure in every other aspect of his life, is the first unfortunate to initially find it with the assistance of a curiously cognizant wild squirrel he later dubs Gordito. The changes in how Thom and Howard relate to one another following the meteor’s appearance, as well as how the lives of their neighbors slowly start to crumble are some of the most imaginatively written events I’ve had the pleasure of reading.
At certain points, I was definitely questioning whether or not Thom was a reliable narrator or if he was simply losing his mind to his own neuroses a little bit. Buchner’s writing style and the way Thom relates his experiences reminded me quite a bit of The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan, which also features an unreliable narrator, but Fish Cough is honestly in a category all its own. There were so many plainly described yet uncanny things that occurred alongside Thom’s own meandering inner narration that figuring out the reality of the characters’ situation became a kind of captivating puzzle for me. He would sometimes get on one thought train regarding his relationship or an experience from his past that would take a drastic turn and then circle back around to the original point of reference in a strange sort of spiraling thought loop. Afterward, he would have interactions with Howard, or with Gordito that would be just slightly this side of weird that it made me question whether or not his previous ramble actually made sense, or if it just made sense to Thom in his own mind. This coupled with the very visceral changes to Howard’s appearance and demeanor meant it wasn’t quite clear what the reality of the situation was versus Thom’s personal interpretation of it until the end of the book. It’s definitely a must-read for lovers of the strange and unusual.