John Edward Lawson’s Last Burn in Hell: Director’s Cut

Last Burn in HellIn Last Burn in Hell: Director’s Cut, John Edward Lawson isn’t giving us a novel so much as he’s playing with the concept of what a novel is. And just in case you don’t get the message from the “Director’s Cut” subtitle, the sub-subtitle is “a film by John Edward Lawson.” It comes complete with photo stills, promotional images, an R rating, and a soundtrack. The soundtrack is mostly composed of actual tracks by hiphop/synth/sampling artists like Techno Animal and DJ Spooky, which you can listen to on Youtube while you read to get the full flavor of the book.

But Lawson is not just playing with the concept of the novel; he’s playing with the fundamental concept of story, by providing multiple endings, “deleted” scenes, and characters (including the protagonist) that lack normal emotional reactions to events. It’s like an extended Monty Python skit or an R. Crumb comic come to life, where characters are all caricatures, the better to get at the absurdity of social norms.

And the social norms Lawson satirizes run the gamut—victim’s rights, male/female relationships, fame, the media, the criminal justice system. The society in this non-novel/non-story is a world out of control—victims seek only to victimize; no court cares about justice; no reporters seek the truth. The society’s just going through the motions, slapping labels on people and things. Story disintegrates when nobody cares about truth. And somehow, Lawson makes you laugh at it all as he takes it all apart.

The narrator/protagonist of Last Burn in Hell, Kenrick Brimley—whose hobby is collecting antique implements of torture—starts out as an employee at a women’s prison. His job is to provide the inmates on death row one last night of sex before they’re executed. Although Kenrick makes every attempt not to get attached to the women he has sex with—not generally a difficult task since they’re all dead the next day—he still ends up with a girlfriend, Leena, because she keeps getting a stay of execution at the last minute, then rescheduled, giving him yet another night with her.

One night he has to do a “double header,” as two inmates he likes—Leena and Juanita—are scheduled to be executed the following day.  But, instead, in a desperate grab for something real, he helps the two women escape from the prison by way of the “underground river system the prison relies on.” They end up in Mexico, where Leena disappears and Juanita is soon joined and mostly replaced by Nikki, a Mexican disco-pop artist. She enlists Kenrick into her entourage. He has little choice but to join her as he has no money, knows no one in Mexico, and needs a place to stay.

Nikki treats him like a slave, or in her words, a “himbo,” which is the male form of bimbo. She starts introducing Kenrick as “K-Ill,” a rap artist from the USA, and he’s soon a big hit with the Mexican paparazzi. He gets his own TV show, an internet site, tons of groupies. His nickname, Suicidio, soon sets off a rash of suicides among Mexican teenagers who worship him. Kenrick goes from being a media icon to a public enemy—all based on fabrication.

Throughout this novel (film), Kenrick muses philosophically about his life, his predicaments, his perspective on the people he must deal with, including this realization near the end, when Brimley is on trial for his life:

We live by our labels, don’t we? That’s what Leena and Nikki were always talking about. The definitions society places on us, that we place on objects or lifestyles or types of entertainment. Boy Toy: that’s how everybody sees Kenrick Brimley. These folks have simply decided to pull a crank to wind the toy up, make him speak, make him dance. Kenrick Brimley has become a monkey on a chain, playing the organ grinder at his own execution.

Don’t skip the deleted scenes or alternate ending, as their existence is critical to the overall impact and meaning of the book. In fact, Kenrick’s story about his mother (a “deleted” scene) is the emotional heart of the book.

Lawson’s fiction is fun to read. It runs on silly jokes, and you want to see what these crazy characters are going to do with the situations he creates. I like writers who say the truths that we’re not supposed to acknowledge, and Lawson’s fiction is exhilarating in its anarchic rebelliousness—obscene, crude, sacrilegious, and explosively intelligent.

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