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Book Review: John Dies at the End by David Wong

When I was a kid, I used to read Mad Magazine. My local grocery store carried it. I also noticed there was a competitor to Mad called Cracked, and I started buying that as well. The age of magazines eventually passed into relative obscurity, and the magazines themselves had to change or die. I don’t see much from Mad anymore, but Cracked seems to have survived the digital transition to become a website that lives in my RSS feeds and that makes me laugh every day.

So when Cracked.com senior editor David Wong released a novel called John Dies at the End, I knew it was fairly likely that I’d enjoy reading it. Thing is, I never got around to it, not until the filmed version was available on demand. I decided it would be best to read the book first.

And then I spent four days trying to figure out how to write the review.

(Warning: this review contains mature language.)

If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, you may already know that John Dies at the End is ostensibly about a drug called soy sauce that immensely sharpens a person’s perception of reality. But the book is about so much more than that. It’s narrated by David Wong (a fictionalized version of the author) as he goes about his life in Undisclosed, a midwestern town about two or three hours away from the nearest major airport. David works at a video store, has a best friend named John who always talks about his penis, and, oh yeah, for some reason has become an amateur ghostbuster. And not the kind with proton packs and a containment unit.

It’s really hard to discuss the plot of the novel without giving away too much, but basically there are two parts to the story: the trip to Las Vegas and the Korrok stuff. I think, but am not sure (because I haven’t seen the movie yet), that the film focuses a lot on the Las Vegas part. That section in itself is enough to fill an entire novel, and by the time I got to the climax, I thought the book was almost over — when it was really only about half done (according to my e-reader). I had no idea where Wong would go next or what would happen.

The answer: stuff.

To avoid spoiling the plot, I’ll just say that parts of it (especially the middle) are somewhat muddled, and I really didn’t comprehend a few things as they related to Korrok, but overall I was very satisfied by the novel and am looking forward to reading the sequel, This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It.

Let me take a few minutes instead to tell you about the writing itself. Wong’s style is fast-paced, epistolary without overusing the second person, and is full of moments that made me laugh out loud, or at least snicker audibly. To wit:

See if she does anything unusual. There’s something I don’t trust about the way she exploded and then came back from the dead like that.

“Fuck all of you,” John retorted. “You don’t even exist. We’re all just a figment of my cock’s imagination.”

We’re talking about a tentacled flying lamp fucker, Dave. What are you prepared to call unlikely?

The phrase ‘sodomized by a bratwurst poltergeist’ suddenly flew through my mind.

Wong also is cheerfully blithe about the enormous plot holes in his protagonist’s storytelling. The narrative is extremely surreal, and there’s kind of a “if I got bored writing after a while, I threw in something fucking ridiculous and awesome” feel to the entire piece.

It’s unfortunate that I can’t be more concrete about what happens in John Dies at the End. The book’s parts are so interdependent upon each other that if I try to explain, for example, why John communicates with David using a bratwurst, I’d end up spoiling some pretty important details. Suffice it to say that this book is funny, gruesome, weird, fast-paced, and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s aimed pretty much at people Wong’s own age — late 20s to early 40s — but since that covers a big chunk of audience, I suppose neither he nor the publisher can complain.

So: go read the book. Just, whatever you do… don’t spoil the ending.

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Note to Parents: This book contains violence, gore, adult situations, drug use, and pervasive adult language. It probably should not be read by anyone under the age of 18. However, you should use your own best judgment when it comes to your children.

Comments (4)

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  1. Daniel B. says:

    Needless to say, I now have less a clue about what the book is about than I did before I read your review…naturally, that means I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for the review.

  2. kleer001 says:

    I think one import thing to point out is the episodic nature of the book. If I’m not mistaken it was originally released online in discrete chunks.

    For me this lends a certain kind of choppyness to the whole book and it feels more like a graphic novel of one offs and four issue story lines than a single arcing book.

    Still, good stuff, and I’m looking forward to reading “This book is full of spiders” and watching the movie. The whole JDATE universe definitely stretched my imagination.

    • Josh Roseman says:

      That’s what Wong said in the afterword. It does tie together fairly well, all told. And This Book is Full of Spiders is next on my list. Haven’t had time to watch the film yet, though.

  3. Rhio2k says:

    Molly is totally awesome. That’s all you need to know.