There's a certain thrill that comes with watching something teeter toward the brink of death--particularly when that something is you. Named for the number of cigarettes in a pack, Richard Beard's first novel, X20, is a journal of sorts kept by a young Brit by the name of Gregory Simpson during his efforts to quit smoking. His entries never fall into the "Day One: Pigged out on Twizzlers and gained five pounds" territory. Instead, Simpson writes with varying degrees of obsession and boredom about smoking and girls, smoking and friends, smoking and parents, and smoking and conspiracy. Whenever Simpson craves a cigarette, he sits down to type, pounding out sentences as if he were chewing off shards of fingernails.
When his craving passes, so too does Simpson's train of thought. The jerky pacing that results from an author who writes merely to keep his hands occupied imparts an immediacy to the stories. Appropriately, Simpson's thoughts and interactions never feel complete; we never even learn if Simpson actually succeeds in quitting, or who, if anyone, he ends up with romantically (the beautiful, chain-smoking college coed who spurned him or the fresh-faced opera hopeful who protects her lungs even from third-hand smoke).
More than anything, X20 is a jittery philosophical treatise on the right to die, to be ill, and to smoke. Published to coincide with the American Cancer Society's annual Great American Smoke Out, X20 presents several biases to the controversy of tobacco smoking, including young women and men who see smoking as a sensual act; medical students funded by tobacco companies; family members of people killed by lung cancer; and men and women who smoke incessantly and live to be 100 years old. Beard does a great job of explaining the thrill and the agony of doing something "immoral": trying to cheat death and waiting with one eye cocked to see what happens.