A young man weakened by a battle with cancer struggles with something tangible inside him that seeks to discover his true origins and proper place in the world.
In Axel Hooley's Death Watch List, the main character, Axel Hooley, may be well described as a drifterless by choice than by circumstance. He is someone whose origins are a mystery even to himself and whom the winds of Fate seem to have blown about, sometimes cruelly but not without purpose, during his 30-odd years on the planet. In fact, his tale may be viewed in some respects as a series of progressive attempts to take control of those winds and learn to use them or, at the very least, understand why his particular sails seem to respond to them as they do.
When we-the-audience first meet Axel, he is sprawled in his underwear on a patch of landscaped lawn somewhere in Beverly Hills, California, having apparently just fallen from (or through) a tree. He is disoriented to the point of wondering not only who he is but what he is, and the immediate clues to those puzzles are fewincluding only his locale and, his name (which comes to him after a bit), and the fact that the deflated bag of his chemotherapy infusion unit hangs in the branches above him.
It is from this abrupt introduction to its main character that the tale of Axel Hooley begins, and the ensuing chapters perform three main tasks:
- To anchor us-the-audience in the present world of Axel and his friends
- To detail in significant spurts the chain of events that has resulted in his arrival in that world from simple Midwestern beginnings
- To hint at and then explore in harrowing depth the underlying mystery of his origins and what they mean for Axel going forward
By interweaving scenes from the present with those of the past (recent, long-ago, and even very deep), the storyteller is able to form and maintain the connections necessary to create a compelling ultimate struggle when it finally appears near the end of the tale.
Along the way, we-the-audience are introduced to the most significant players in Axel's life, who together comprise the core ensemble of the tale. Of these, the opposing characters are confined largely to his past, and his present includes only those whose loving concern for him unites them as a tag team of alliessome of whom he includes on a "death watch list" of friends whom he believes (rightly) that he can count on to help him navigate the day-to-day operations of his cancer treatment therapy.
Some of these allies help him in practical ways, making sure that he is cared for physically; others attempt to help in ways that he does not understand at first. But each is driven by the desire to assist him in his journey toward health. And because the storyteller employs well-rendered elements of magical realism in the tale, no effort seems more or less important than the others. Each is necessary to Axel's health and well-being, if only in some small way.
In the context of principles outlined in Discovering the Soul of Your Story, Axel Hooley's Death Watch List must be classified as a "tale" rather than a "story" (see the Academy article titled "The Difference Between a Story and a Tale.") Specifically, its sequence of events is not driven (or even directed) by an overarching goal on the part of the main character the achievement of which can be measured clearly in terms of success or failure at the end. Axel is floating down the river of life, not paddling against its currents. This does not mean that he lacks a compelling internal drive, only that the drive does not provide the primary conscious focus for a direct attempt to satisfy an intent.