John Dies at the End

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An expanded on-line novel aimed at the teenage-slacker demo offers one too many penis jokes and pop-culture shout outs.

When the world faces the apocalypse in the form of “bratwurst poltergeists” and a demon-leader named Korrok from an alternate universe, it’s up to David Wong and his friend and video store co-worker, John, to save us. Well, who you gonna call? What started out as an online novel, John Dies at the End is being released to the unassuming public in updated and expanded form—consider this fair warning for the next time you’re surrounded by fire-breathing coyotes at the mall.

David and John start out as a particular kind of early-twentysomething Everymen. They have less-than-glamorous retail jobs, embarrassing cars, and a cache of infantile penis jokes. What distinguishes them from the rest is that, at a party one night, someone gives them a mysterious black, liquid drug that they dub “Soy Sauce.” Instead of killing them, like it does everyone else who takes it, the Soy Sauce gives David and John the power to see, hear, and do battle with Korrok’s army of paranormal followers.

At first, I was taken with the novel’s narrative voice. As Wong relays his story to Arnie Blondestone—who’s doing a cover story for American Lifestyle magazine on the author/narrator and his friend, his plainspoken storytelling was the one realist element I was able to hold on to while so many otherworldly minor characters and plot-twists were happening on the page:

“Let’s say you have an ax. Just a cheap one from Home Depot. On one bitter winter day, you use said ax to behead a man. Don’t worry, the man was already dead. Or maybe you should worry, because you’re the one who shot him… He had been a big, twitchy guy with veiny skin stretched over swollen biceps, a tattoo of a swastika on his tongue. Teeth filed into razor-sharp fangs—you know the type. And you’re chopping off his head because, even with eight bullet holes in him, you’re pretty sure he’s about to spring back to his feet and eat the look of terror right off your face.”

It doesn’t take long before Wong’s sophomoric humor starts to work against him. At the same party where David and John are turned on to Soy Sauce, they play in a band whose set list includes songs like “Gay Superman,” “Camel Holocaust,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” After the “bratwurst poltergeist” scene, the reader anticipates that they’re in for a ride where the craziest of things can and will happen, and it’s easy to forgive a few immature jabs.

But after 372 pages of juvenile humor, not even the narrative voice is enough to save this book. David becomes the butt of quite a few of John’s penis jokes, and the occasional gay joke—and long before the end of the book, there’s one joke too many. Having been exposed to Soy Sauce, David and John are taunted by Korrok in ways that no one else can see or hear. For instance, whenever they hear a song on the radio, they hear a twisted version of the lyrics. Such is the case when they hear R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”:

“That’s me in the porno,
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Tryin’ to beat a tight-assed Jew…”

Come on… really? Just how many bonghits did Wong do before he sat down to write this thing? How old is the author? Moments like these make it difficult to stay focused on the world of the novel, which already asks so much from the reader in terms of suspending disbelief. Limp Bizkit frontman, Fred Durst, even makes an appearance as an apparition, and the lyrics of that band’s song “Rollin’ (Air Raid Vehicle)” appear in what I assume to be their true form. It’s impossible to tell if Wong is being ironic or paying some kind of tribute—but at that point, I was pretty much done with John Dies at the End.

Crude humor, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s just that we’ve already seen Clerks and Clerks II, Baseketball, and, for that matter, the Evil Dead trilogy. What’s on the page here has been done before, and done a lot better, despite the novel’s plethora of pop-culture references including awful ‘80s bands like Night Ranger. The story doesn’t generate much momentum, once a few inventive monsters have been dealt with. If you’re outside of the adolescent male demographic, it’s unlikely that you’ll get more than a couple of quiet smiles out of reading this book. But if you should end up with a copy, don’t fret—just give it to the first thirteen-year-old boy you see.

Kenny Squires lives and writes fiction in St. Louis, where he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. More from this author →