Monday, April 14, 2014
I'd never read anything before by Max Booth III, so when I started Toxicity, his debut novel, I didn't know what to expect. And to be honest, I didn't feel much excitement as I started the book and encountered a character named Johnny Desperation and a suburban town called Loathing, Illinois. These sort of hit-you-on-the-head names in a crime novel struck me as too obvious and jokey. But as the book progressed and I became more attuned to the author's tone and method, it became clear that I was reading a book sort of half crime novel, half over the top comedy, and the names fit part and parcel with the overall approach. What Booth tries in Toxicity is a difficult balancing act, a mixture of tones that more experienced novelists don't always pull off. He has daring and ambition to spare, and that he succeeds as well as he does is a testament to his skill.
Toxicity follows three separate story lines. One involves a former Chicago Cubs prospect turned criminal just released from prison. Another involves the criminal's teenaged daughter, her junkie mother and stepfather, and her gentle caring boyfriend. And the third involves that guy named Johnny Desperation, a teenager who gets caught in the grip of a new powerful drug called Jericho, or more commonly, the purple. You could think of the purple as a kind of steroid for the brain, and the very name made me laugh, reminding me (especially with the book's baseball connection) of that major performance enhancing drug called the "clear". Nothing is clear to anyone who takes the purple, and as Johnny Desperation falls deeper and deeper under the drug's sway, the book abounds in hallucinatory imagery. These sections had a feel reminiscent of Philip K. Dick; we watch a character's identity disintegrate as he struggles with the idea of what is real and what not and what he may or may not be chosen to do. From ordinary adolescent loafer, Desperation turns into a messianic figure hell-bent on destroying the world for a greater good dictated by an entity I won't give away. We are in the clutches here of psychological horror, and a serious tone predominates.
At the same time, we follow the nearly intersecting lives of Maddox (the criminal) and Addison (his daughter), and for each of these story strands Booth adheres to a specific tone. The Maddox parts follow the mediocre criminal and his blockheaded brother as they try to get money Maddox desperately needs, and the tone vies between realistic and comical, even slapsticky. The element of the grotesque that's played for horror in the Desperation parts is here played for laughs: imagine something of the tone of the Coen Brothers' RAISING ARIZONA and you'll have the idea. By contrast, the Addison parts carry real emotional weight, and the narrative frequently adopts a genuine sweetness. You care for Addison in her predicament, and you're rooting for her to escape the foulness she's living in. The relationship between her and her boyfriend Connor is the most convincing and involving one in the book.
In Toxicity, Max Booth burrows into a world of human stupidity and greed, and he does it in a way that entertains. He keeps his juggling act of tones and storylines going at a brisk pace, never allowing the novel to drag. There's a good bit of effective humor. He connects his horrid view of the suburbs to a caustic look at family life and family ties, and one starts to feel as one tears through the pages that only the lucky will survive. Not everything in the book works; at times the depiction of people shades toward caricature (Johnny's mother, for example), and perhaps Booth strains a bit too much to make certain characters gross or stupid (Addison's stepfather, Maddox's brother), providing them with nothing more than base or simplistic motivations. But these drawbacks, all things considered, are minor in the scheme of things. Taken as a whole, Toxicity works. In a book with fireworks shooting off in many directions, the climax becomes extremely important: there had better be an ending that brings things together in a satisfactory way. Here, without question, there is. The final scenes of the book combine horror, frivolity, violence, and sweetness quite well. The authorial control is there. I had a fun time reading Toxicity, and I'm curious to see what intoxicating mixture Max Booth will cook up next.