Visionary writers like Bradley Denton often remain below the radar of public consciousness. Denton’s masterful 1993 novel Blackburn introduced the concept of the moralistic serial killer, a full decade before Jeff Lindsay parlayed a similar idea into four popular novels and the highly successful Showtime series featuring blood-spatter expert and killer Dexter Morgan. Denton’s book garnered a 1993 Bram Stoker nomination, glowing critical praise, and little else. Due in a large part to Dexter’s success, Blackburn was reprinted in 2007.
By mid-2001, Denton completed the fictional Laughin’ Boy, relating the horrors and fallout from the largest terrorist action enacted on U.S. soil. The events of September 11, 2001 made the material an anathema to major publishers. The title languished in unpublished-book limbo until 2005, when Subterranean Press selected it for an extremely limited print run of 750 signed copies and 26 signed leatherbound editions. Earlier this fall, Wheatland Press finally released Denton’s powerful, postmodern tale in a general trade edition.
On Saturday, May 20, 2000, at an outdoor music festival in Wichita, Kansas, masked gunmen launched an explosive attack killing scores of people. Amidst the chaos, a dying dentist records Danny Clayton on video, unharmed, but his face covered in the blood of others.
That isn’t what shocks and enrages us, though.
What shocks and enrages us are the happy bleats coming from his open mouth. What shocks and enrages us are the curves of his cheek muscles and the light flashing from his white teeth and aqua eyes.
What shocks and enrages us is the sudden sure knowledge that he is neither weeping nor in hysterics. There is no grief, horror, or insanity in what he does.
He is, purely and simply, laughing his ass off.
Post attack, the media fixates on the so-called Laughin’ Boy instead of the tragedy itself. Danny quickly emerges as the most hated man in America. He loses his teaching job and the bereaved threaten his family. Under FBI protective custody, Danny receives treatment from famed husband-and-wife radio psychologist team Dr. Ralph and Carla DeWitt:
He looked at Dr. Ralph. “You mean the way I’ve been laughing. You know that I don’t want to?”
Dr. Ralph nodded. “Of course. Many people have hysterical reactions to traumatic events, but that’s not quite what we believe has happened to you. If you would, please, tell me your reaction to what my wife is holding.”
Danny turned toward Dr. Carla, who showed him a large color photograph of a man, woman, and little boy who had all been disemboweled. Their eyes were open, and their faces were frozen in expressions of pain and horror.
So Danny’s aching belly convulsed, and he twisted onto his side. It was a bad attack, and the more he tried to stop it, the worse it got. He curled up into a fetal ball.
While under the DeWitts’ care, Danny befriends two other remarkable patients: Porno Girl, a virginal lawyer who is obsessed with pornography — the raunchier and nastier the better — and the white Racist Ranger, a top-notch FBI agent compelled to speak in the same African-American 19th-century dialect as Jim from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The despised trio lies at the center of a violent struggle that only began in Wichita.
Throughout his riveting satirical novel, Denton successfully incorporates text equivalents of several early 21st-century mass communication modes, including video clips, newsgroup posts, sound bites, internet group chat, talk shows, and web pages alongside the more traditional-looking therapy transcripts and linear prose episodes. He wisely centers the story on the tragic tale of Laughin’ Boy, forcing us to take a hard look at contemporary media and its ability to derail society from the important to the trivial:
Cut back to HOST, who steps up onto the stage, where a platform holds five chairs in a curving row. The infamous dying-dentist video of Laughin’ Boy begins playing on a giant screen behind the chairs.
HOST: That man doesn’t look ill or hysterical, does he? He looks as if he has his wits about him and is enjoying what’s happening, doesn’t he?
AUDIENCE: Yeahhh! `Plus assorted disparaging remarks.`
The video running on the giant screen zooms in and freezes on Laughin’ Boy’s face. This image will provide a backdrop of blood-streaked hilarity for most of the show.
HOST: Well, our first guests today claim that this so-called “Laughin’ Boy” does in fact have a previously unknown mental disorder, and that his behavior is therefore not at all his fault!
Bradley Denton achieves a truly rare literary feat: a near-perfect satire that relies not on humor but rather a Marshall McLuhan view of reality. Like most of Denton’s works, the excellent novel derives its strength from the absurd, presented in an intelligent and extremely well-crafted manner. Hopefully, the insightful Laughin’ Boy will at last create that Denton blip on the radar of public consciousness.
By Bradley Denton
$20, 400 pages (paperback)