Michael Boatman is determined to revel in our discomfort with the splatterpunk horrors that populate God Laughs When You Die, where the highest aesthetic principle is brutality. Reading these nine stories is like being shot with paintballs filled with blood.
A man is murdered by the husband of his lover, only to receive dark, murderous salvation from a bayou mermaid; the victims of a killer come back from the grave to rescue his battered wife and exact their vengeance; sinister, charismatic gods command helpless victims to carry out their bidding; the last American president hellishly renders the orgiastic violence of his day in office. Boatman seems less interested in merely grossing us outóhis project appears more aimed toward using the blunt force of violence to knock us off our feet and into his clutches, where he coddles us with fairy tales of the damned and their victims. To what end is unclear, as itís hard to see past Boatmanís hyper-manic, almost psychotic prose to uncover some deeper theme or meaning. Whether this volume demands one is another question, but I make the point as a proverbial warning label: let the buyer beware.
Many of Boatmanís characters are profoundly alienated souls, and there is a form of tenderness in these stories about their condition. They arenít particularly good peopleómost of them are vagrants and undesirables in their own rightsóbut by standing opposed to the terrible evil that surrounds them, the reader feels something approaching sympathy. Boatmanís ethics appear to classify things as that which is evil and that which is not; goodness and hope are only the rarest of gems. With virtually no refuge of safety, all we can do is squirm. What may make the reader most uncomfortable is that these stories also make us laugh, for they are resplendent in dark humor; one may be sickened by their ability to laugh at such misfortune.
In many respects, this is storytelling at its most fantastic. Elements of surrealism and science fiction are plentiful, all working toward a hyperbolic style. The language tends towards the crude, not in the way of expletives but in the form of grit. The narration and dialogue arenít pretty and have no frills, and given their subject matter and setting, are entirely believable.
But for all that one can glorify such daring, wild writing, itís necessary to point out that it can go too far, becoming more comic book than frightening. Thereís nothing wrong with using a spare and more minimal approach toward depravityóitís accomplished beautifully in J. Eric Millerís Animal Rights and Pornography, for exampleóand it can even be more effective than Boatmanís completely over-the-top style, which makes itself seem a little ridiculous. I hold little credence with the notion that one is aesthetically better than the other; it seems more a question of tasteónot in terms of what is acceptable for literatureóbut whether one hungers for the carnivalesque or if one desires more restrained elegance. Hence Boatmanís in-your-face scare tactics will be either a triumph or a failure, depending on the reader. I figure most of us are capable of making that decision.