Vladimir lives in Russia. In 1929, he develops a case of the hiccups. This is a normal affliction for an eight-year-old, but Vladimir's won't go away. No matter how many people shout "boo" at Vladimir -- his mother, his teacher, his doctor -- he continues to emit a hiccup every 3.7 seconds. Specialists are called in, using a series of increasingly drastic treatments that nearly kill Vladimir but fail to cure him. Unable to find a physical cause of Vladimir's condition, his treating physician decides the problem is psychosomatic and confines him in an asylum -- where, of course, his constant hiccuping drives the patients even madder than they already are.
Vladimir's physician is perplexed when a psychiatric specialist who asks Vladimir about love -- and then nearly every person Vladimir encounters -- comes to view Vladimir as a monster, "an evil spirit bathed in malice." That conclusion, adopted by others, leads to the search for a cure that lies beyond the realm of medicine, a cure that can only be found in Mongolia.
After a flash-forward to 1941, the adult Vladimir experiences an epiphany while standing in a waterfall, and it is time for him to leave. Vladimir's journey from Mongolia to Moscow is eventful, to say the least. Dodging the Red Army, the German Army, the Japanese Army, an irate farmer concerned about the virtue of a daughter who has none, a batty woman who refuses to acknowledge the death of her son, and hiccuping all the way, Vladimir returns to the hospital where he was once treated, and learns of the surprising impact his life (and hiccups) had on the people he once knew. His story goes on from there. And, difficult though it may be to believe, the story becomes even stranger.
What to make of the adult Vladimir? He might be deranged or he might be unusually focused. He lives in a society that condemns him but there are those who love him. It is easy for a reader to be both sympathetic to and a little repelled by the man Vladimir becomes. To what extent he is a creature of his own making (epiphanies notwithstanding) is unclear given the brutal history he has endured, yet in the end there is something admirable about this strange man. He is, in some ways, more pure, more innocent, less a monster than many of those his society holds in higher esteem.
The fascinating but bizarre tale that Christopher Meades tells is difficult to classify. Not quite a horror story, not quite a love story, not quite a war story, but with elements of each, The Last Hiccup is sort of a macabre comedy. Apart from mining the comic potential that inheres in hiccups, Meades generates laughs with professional jealousy, lust, war, religion, and a variety of other topics that the naïve Vladimir isn't quite equipped to comprehend. Yet what seems to start as light comedy becomes progressively darker as Vladimir becomes ever more aware of life's cruelty. Still, even the novel's darkest moments are brightened by the slapstick humor of absurd events.
Meades writes with droll wit while moving the story forward at a brisk pace. Supporting characters (like a narcoleptic nurse) are imbued with qualities that enhance their comedic appeal. All of this makes The Last Hiccup a thoroughly enjoyable story. I would give it 4 1/2 stars if that option were available.