Swallowdown Press, 52 pages, digital, $0.99
Some authors dance to the rhythm of their own drum. Not Jeremy Robert Johnson. Jeremy Robert Johnson is hiding in the bass drum. He’s crammed in there, naked, giggling like a coked-up fiend, and holding a sharp knife between his teeth. He’s ready to slice the throat of the first person who walks by and then drink his or her blood from the gushing wound while flipping the bird to onlookers. Sure, that might sound a little extreme, but when you read How to Fuck Up Everything and Die Alone: The JRJ Drug Sampler, it will strike you as the only plausible truth.
How to Fuck Up Everything and Die Alone is a collection of three stories that revolve around drugs, but explaining it like that is like saying Dave Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is novel about ludicrously long sentences. The stories in this sampler are about the effects drugs have on people and the psyches that drove them to seek that chemical escape. They’re also about fear, death, pain, curiosity, horror, and nasty surprises.
Johnson kicks things off with “A Number of Things Come to Mind.” The story follows Quincy, a pill-popping obsessive-compulsive who works as a commercial loan analyst. He’s obsessed with numbers, palindromes, organization, patterns. He’s also infatuated with the Trinity and wants to see it, touch it, experience it up-close, and he thinks tripling his acid dose will accomplish that. In a way, he succeeds, but the cost might be a little higher than replacing a fried motherboard.
“Dissociative Skills,” the second story, is full of the phrasing that makes JRJ a pleasure to read. This fast-paced tale also does something that almost all of Johnson’s fiction does: it stands smack in the middle of that strange place where horror, bizarro, superb prose, and cerebral narratives meet. The tale follows Curt, a young man who’s infatuated with knowing. If an idea comes to mind, he has to see it through. If a question pops into his brain, he must answer it regardless of consequences. The result is a life constantly on the edge of madness and pain:
“Curt knew how long it took to eat a pound of Crisco. He knew the nervous sweat that preceded smashing his own thumb with a hammer. He knew what it was like to go to a party in a wheelchair, wearing a Skynyrd t-shirt, asking girls if they wanted to “rollerfuck his freebird.” He knew the discomfort of spending an entire day with a travel toothbrush jammed up his ass. He knew what it was like to kill a fly, eat half of it, and deposit the remaining thorax and twitching wing into his left ear.”
Curt’s latest idea has to do with seeing what’s inside him, and he has some powerful ketamine and a scalpel to help him get the answer. Despite the fact this narrative is as tense, bloody, and horrific as horror can get, it also packs an unexpected emotional punch and a frantic pace that hurls readers precisely into the moment they probably want to avoid.
The JRJ Drug Sampler closes with “Liquidation.” I won’t give it away because unwrapping this one is a pleasure I refuse to take away from readers, but know this: if the previous story is gloomy, this one is made from the cloth of nightmares and has some Nazi hatred sprinkled on top.
How to Fuck Up Everything and Die Alone is part of a larger project. JRJ is one of those perfectionists who make readers wait for new books, but now they can get six books at once. Along with this sampler, the author released five more samplers: Hungry Fucking Animals: The JRJ Crime Sampler, The Cottony Wasteland of My E.T. Eliot Brand Waist-Band: The JRJ Bizarro Sampler, Dead Empires and Terrible Hosts: The JRJ Horror Sampler, Doomsday Variations: The JRJ Apocalypse Sampler, and Entropy In Bloom: The JRJ Literary Sampler.
As a reviewer, I could go on and on about how Johnson is one of the best writers out there and how he can shine in any genre he pleases. Luckily for everyone, I don’t have to: these new samplers will do that much more eloquently and infinitely more entertainingly. Pick all of them up today and start with How to Fuck Up Everything and Die Alone. Then, if the naked maniac with the knife and the sharp prose doesn’t scare you, move on to the next.
Gabino Iglesias is writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.