Review: Last Days, by Brian Evenson

>>Published: February 2009

>>Finally got around to it: January 2011

A dim howl went up through the house and Kline heard, scattered through the chairs, a dull thumping, the sound of stumps beating against one another. She made her way toward one side of the stage, spinning slightly, and then snapped the stump of her arm against her remaining hand and Kline saw three fingers wobble loose and slough away. The crowd roared. He tried to stand up but Ramse had his hand on his shoulder and was shouting in his ear. “Just you wait,” Ramse shouted, “the best is yet to come.”

And then the woman sashayed across the stage and reached up with her remaining finger and thumb to tear free her ear. She spun it around a few times before tossing it out into the audience. Kline saw a group of men rise up in a dark mass, trying somehow, with what hands they had left between them, to catch it. And then she turned away, turned her back to them, and when she turned back her artificial breasts had been pulled away to hang like an apron around her belly, revealing two shiny flat patches where they had been. She spread her legs and squatted and Kline imagined her legs were beginning to separate, to split up. Jesus, God, he thought, and tried to stand, and felt Ramse trying to hold him down, and felt the blood rush to his head. He staggered forward and into the small table, hot coffee sloshing all over his legs, and looked up to see the woman on the stage gouging her fingers beneath one side of her face, but mercifully, before she had torn it away, he had fallen and did not, despite Ramse’s urging, get up again.

***

Violent. Vulgar. Uncomfortable.

The three words that first come to mind when I try to reflect on Brian Evenson’s Last Days, a quick, pulp/hard-boiled mystery laced with dismemberment, cults, and possibly more blood per page than any book I’ve ever read. And, maybe not surprisingly if you know a thing or two about me and my phobias (I don’t stand up so well to blood—matter of fact, sometimes I fall straight over at the sight), this made it a bit difficult to see this book through to the end. I don’t think I’ve struggled to want to finish a book this much since Ryu Murakami’s Audition (to which the film version is almost equally horrifying). Maybe that’s why I’ve posted as much of the book as I have up above—as a disclaimer to anyone who might still be interested once I’ve said my peace.

Because this book most definitely has an audience. It moves at a wicked pace, and it has a great deal of comic sensibility, especially between the characters of Ramse and Gous, and I appreciated the partially fresh take on the oppressive, whacked-out-of-its-mind religious cult (the somewhat skewed biblical conceit of removing one’s hand should it offend, and taking that to the Nth degree by continuing to remove body parts as needed—because less is more, and less will bring you closer to God).

BUT.

And this is a big one.

If the section I’ve quoted at the beginning has your stomach turning ass over teakettle, or if you have any squeamishness towards blood and funny little things like dismemberment, think twice. Because the quick pace and fired-up style doesn’t outweigh the paper-thin characters, or the recycled tropes of the religious leader who seeks absolute devotion no matter the cost, winding the hero around his thumb (whether it’s there still or not) by answering only with misinformation. And when those details are stripped away, all that’s left are the blood-splattered bed spreads of too many devotees and not enough promise to have given their lives for.

Recommended for the shock-and-awe reader, but no one else.

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