When Max Booth III asked me if I’d review Toxicity, I was very excited. I’ve been following Max’s career since he was writing short stories as a teena...moreWhen Max Booth III asked me if I’d review Toxicity, I was very excited. I’ve been following Max’s career since he was writing short stories as a teenager. The first time we met at World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City, I remember telling him “I think you’re brilliant,” a phrase I have used maybe three times in my life to describe living authors. I solicited a collaborative writing project from him right then and there, and though we’re slow going, I do still plan to write something amazing with him in the coming years.
Max Booth is just that good.
I read Toxicity in a sitting. While the author describes it as an homage to Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, I didn’t see the parallels as clearly as he. Perhaps it was the medium, but in book form, it reminded me more of three key contemporary authors. At first, the disjointed clutch of characters reminded me of the way Tom Robbins or Christopher Moore will weave together a story from multiple starting points, where an entire cast of hitherto unknowns ends up converging in one clever, epic climactic tangle toward the end. Add to this a hint of early Chuck Palahniuk in which the story is not only told from multiple perspectives Robbins-and-Moore style, but also from multiple timelines converging on the present, and this experimental narrative really hits the nail on the head. I would be remiss in my comparative duties if I did not also mention that the book deeply reminded me of David Wong’s John Dies at the End, given that both involve a strange hallucinogenic drug that alters reality for those who take it along with some slapstick “macabre-y” at which Hammer fans like myself always grin.
The cast includes a baseball-obsessed, recent ex-convict imprisoned for a rookie drug-dealing mistake and his bumbling brother; the Desperation family, centering on a teenaged boy named Johnny; a young girl from a dysfunctional family and her boyfriend, a member of a Harry Potter-themed musical band; a drug kingpin; a girl with cotton-candy-colored hair; and a dog named Zooey Deschanel. The mortar of story—the web that eventually attracts all the characters to one central location--is a new and terrifying drug called “purple,” referred to by the alternative street name, “Jericho.”
This story started off with a bang. After the first twenty chapters, I turned to my partner and said, “This is really good.” Again, this is not something I say very often of contemporary writers. Around the climax though—a scene where some of the characters botch a deal with a middle-manager of the drug industry—the book started to turn for me. It was at this point that two key things began occurring with some regularity. First, a set of recurring jokes that seemed forced and contrived eventually left me feeling like my friend, Max Booth, didn’t trust that his readers were smart enough to pick up the tail of the joke on their own. One repeated about eight times throughout the end chapters and each time I saw it, I released an audible groan. As a writer myself, I can imagine how this happened: it is so very difficult to “kill our darlings” in our own writing. The first time the repeated jokes appeared, I laughed, but each subsequent time, I found myself growing annoyed.
The second turn of events has to do with something a little heavier: the characters themselves. Toward the end, the characters (at least two of them) perform in a way inconsistent with their personalities up to the critical point. Both characters in question lose everything that has ever mattered to them in the blink of an eye. Yet, they react in a flip, cavalier disregard for those things. They behave as though nothing really mattered to them at all (though, up to this point, we have more than a hundred pages pointing to the opposite notion). The best example of this is the moment when one of them is caught and, rather than express any sentiment for the recent losses, instead ends with a flip joke. The other character shows very little “believable” emotion after experiencing a series of traumatic events and losing the one thing left that this character held dear. There was a hint of loss, and then, poof. Gone.
Regardless of a few turns in the plot-line and delivery, this book was very good. I enjoyed it enough to finish it in one sitting and to compare the craft of it to two of my all-time favorite authors (Tom Robbins and Christopher Moore). I stand by my original assessment of Max Booth’s writing abilities: he’s brilliant and I fully expect his work to be adapted for feature films within the next three years (did you hear that, Max? Better get writing). I recommend this book to anyone who likes to find the structure in chaos, to anyone who enjoys a tongue-in-cheek tangle of yarn about depravity and crime, and to anyone who just wants to read a good book.
~Araminta Star Matthews, author of Blind Hunger, and coauthor of Horror High School: Return of the Loving Dead. (less)