There are authors whose work, even if enjoyable and topnotch, has a similar feel from book to book. They may have a certain tone they carry from work to work or they may write a series. You may be able to identify them easily as a writer of private eye novels, cozies, international thrillers, horror, science fiction, whatever. Not so, Max Booth III. So far, through the three books I've read by him, Booth has established himself as a writer who's unclassifiable. In both Toxicity and The Mind is a Razorblade, his previous two books, he showed an assured ability to mix crime fiction with black humor with speculative fiction with a healthy dose of satire and outright slapstick comedy. For all the frenetic activity in his books, though, he also was able to keep things emotionally grounded, never losing sight of the yearnings, the need for connection, among his most central characters. Above all, one gets from Booth the definite sense that he wants to entertain. He's a showman, and I mean this in the best sense of the word. Booth is freewheeling in how he approaches genre and not afraid to go over the top and far afield in his subject matter, but there's nothing aloof or preening or snarky in his tone. He'll do what he wants to do in his fiction - and conventional story expectations be damned - but his goal clearly is not to shove weirdness down the reader's throat for the sake of weirdness. He simply wants to take the reader along on a wild, fun, exciting ride.
With, his most recent book, How to Successfully Kidnap Strangers, Booth does not disappoint. Again, as the title indicates, there is crime at the center of the story, but here the tone is decidedly satirical. You don't have an investment in the characters as much as you do in some of the characters in his other books, but that's only as it should be in a satire. Booth knows just how to set the reader at the right distance from his characters, neither looking down at them nor especially caring all that much about them. Satire is very much about deriving enjoyment in the kind of way you might take pleasure from watching an ant colony at work, and that's pretty much how I viewed this tale, which involves kidnappings, robbery, shootings, serial killing, and beheadings.
But what exactly is Max Booth satirizing? Nothing less than the indie lit scene now booming, and Booth, who runs an indie press when not producing his own novels, knows this world cold. He gives us a nasty blogger, an indie press publisher and his motley staff, a prolific bizarro lit hack who turns out titles like The Cumming of Christ. Indeed, all the titles Booth mentions in the book sound ridiculous (Attack of the Chlamydia Kamikazes, Cunnilingus is Close to Godliness), but they actually aren't much more outrageous than a lot of indie lit titles that exist in the real world. Throw into this mix a ferocious serial killer, a cop who loves the stuff the indie press - BILF Publishing, meaning Books I'd Love to Fuck Publishing - puts out, and an overweight guy desperate to work as an editor for BILF; and you pretty much have the cast of characters for this novel. I won't go into detail about the plot because the less said about it the better. Why ruin the surprises? I will say it's lightning fast, gleefully blood-soaked, absurd, and filled with twists. Booth's satire, like a lot of the best satire, is very focused and specific, not broad; he keeps his eye on the target and picks away at it. He also knows that one key to comedy is to make the characters themselves serious. They don't know how silly and idiotic they often are. While they strive and screw up, you laugh. True, the more you know about the indie lit scene, the more you'll recognize in the book and the more you'll laugh at what's presented, but I don't think a reader's enjoyment will be dependent upon knowing this world well. After all, the follies of ego, resentment, insecurity and envy are universal, common to every artistic and professional scene. And in the midst of it all, during a brief respite from the shenanigans, Booth shows us his earnest side, the side that tells us something about him as a writer:
"Genre exists to limit writers, okay? You gotta break these walls down. Don't let stereotypes and fictional guidelines silence your originality. Too many writers kill their inner desires to write whatever they want in fear of upsetting potential readers because you didn't follow the exact guidelines of your usual genre. These fears want you to die. Chuck them into a fire and be done with them. There are no rules here. Your main characters do not have to end up together happily ever after in your romance story. The scientist does not have to be mad in your science fiction series. Your male protagonist does not have to ruin your female protagonist's face with cum in your latest erotica. Everybody does not have to die in your horror novel. In fact, nobody has to die. There are no rules in fiction. There is only you and the story. Write from your heart and keep the words true and forget about everything else."
Well said, and, to judge by his books so far, words that Booth himself tries to follow. I'm confident he'll keep following them. I'm also fairly sure I'll read his next book. But I can tell you this: I have no idea what his next book will be about and I don't know what genres and tones he'll be playing around with. Can't predict with this writer. Love that.