The things that keep this from being a complete recommendation are that it is very profane in places, and in others the references seem a bit too clever, which while not a knock against the book, is still something that gives me enough pause to say this may not be a book for everyone, though those who believe they would be in the target audience are probably going to find a book worthy of their time.
In total, I would say Sloughing Off The Rot is worth a read, and definitely worth the time it takes to track it down. If you get into it, there's a wealth of dense story, and if you don't, there's nothing really lost. More as always below.
"I'm not afraid of you and I'm not afraid of dying. I'm scared of living, dying is easy."
This is my first read of a Lance Carbuncle book, and I'm still not sure if he's a genius with a wide range of interests, lucky and incredibly profane, or both. Sloughing Off The Rot contains references to a wide number of literary works, music, biblical events*, and the occasional historical or pop culture in-joke, creating a dense web of story that both glorifies the heroic epic while gleefully ripping it to shreds in a horde of flies. It's a bizarre and utterly profane work, at times overloading on gross imagery and occasional bathroom jokes, but finding itself again just in time to keep the plot moving. As John and his friends (loose term there) make their way across the wasteland on the Red-Brick Road, there are some definite parallels to other myths (John spilling his seed on the ground and creating life, for example) and a lot of very odd concepts that propel the book forward. Either way, I feel Carbuncle is a man to watch.
Sloughing Off The Rot tells the story of John, a man who is awoken in the middle of the night by a god who quotes Proclaimers lyrics and told that he will be called on to take an incredibly important journey as John the Revelator. After participating in a rather unorthodox and slightly-unprintable creation rite, John is set upon El Camino de la Muerte, the "red brick road" to find himself and fill the blank slate that is his soul.
And then things get very weird. Um...weirder.
John is accosted and infected with something called "lunkworms" by a cackling bearded vagrant calling himself Santiago. Santiago informs him that the lunkworms will help to cure his soul and mind...a kind of spiritual maggot therapy that will either cure him and allow him to rewrite his own blank slate if he so wishes. Santiago infects several others with the worms, only for them to turn into zombies known as "lunkheads" because their minds were unable to withstand the infection. And so begins an unlikely partnership...John setting off down the road, and Santiago capering along with him, alternately causing trouble and misleading our hero as well as helping him out when he can. Along the way they encounter a crazed civilization living in abandoned buses, Alf the Sacred Burro (who vomits up smokable bezoars), a Native American whose eye defect makes him resemble the old "Keep America Beautiful" ads starring Iron Eyes Cody, and further incomprehensible messages from God. But what is John supposed to be doing? And who is the Reverend Android Lovethorn? John will have to answer a lot of questions and find his way into the role of reluctant savior before all of this is through. And it will be far from easy.
I suppose the biggest thing to point out here would be the command over imagery Carbuncle exercises. Part of what makes the book, and indeed some of the characters so nastily fascinating is that every ailment, every blemish, every single detail one can think of in the process is delivered in exquisite and grotesque snapshots, be they snot-rockets full of "munkle flies", a three-toothed Indian whose eye perpetually leaks tears, or a series of frightening and chimeric creatures created from John's seed. And the interesting thing is, the details never really approach overload. Yes, things are gross, but it feels more like they're appropriately so rather than the overload of, say, Mieville or Stephen Hunt on a tear. Carbuncle does a good job with making the hallucinatory road-trip that is Sloughing Off The Rot one that's memorable and incredibly lucid.
Second, the atmosphere created is a huge boon. Rot is the latest in a long tradition of what could be called "acid westerns", a genre that also includes El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and to a certain degree Stephen King's The Gunslinger. Acid Westerns take the basic framework of a western (say, a man journeying along a road) and add hallucinatory visuals, mysticism, religious imagery, and elements of magical realism to the plotline. Sloughing Off The Rot also plays with this as much as it plays parts of it straight, creating an atmosphere that despite the grim and grotesque manner, also plays out as a very pitch-black comedy. The atmosphere of the book preserves this pretty well, creating a terrifying world to live in, but one that (as long as you're reading about it and following the protagonists) seems at least a little fun. Between the constant and annoying intervention of deities, the idea of mystical powers such as laying on hands, and just the sheer black absurdity of the setting,
Adding to the atmosphere is the sheer density. By about a third of the way through the book, I counted references to Coleridge, The Proclaimers, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Beck, and even very possibly Terry Pratchett**. And they only get more elaborate from there. There's reference to myth, to the hero's journey, to messianic stories...all of which creates the perfect atmosphere for John's journey. He's been thrown into an heroic myth from Hell, a twisted acid-landscape of things he doesn't understand, but which have their roots in other things. It's nice when a book lends itself to being unpacked this way, with enough secrets to uncover that there's a certain element of exploration to the whole process. And that the references never really get in the way of the plot but add to it is laudable, too. This adds a certain richness to the book that helps offset even its more grotesque moments
Which leads me to my singular complaint. At points, Sloughing Off The Rot gets a little too excessive. I definitely wouldn't recommend it to those seeking out more conventional fare, as it pretty firmly draws its line in the sand just to the left of El Camino de la Muerte and dares anyone to venture into the dark and rather strange territory between its covers. At times, the weirdness seems a little oppressive, and occasionally elements of it don't completely make sense (or maybe the reason just went over my head), but it nagged at me just enough I felt I should mention. This definitely isn't a book for everyone, but it aims at its audience and is sure to hit its target.
So in the end, while I definitely can't recommend the book to everyone, I definitely recommend it to those who are adventurous enough to brave some gross scenes, scatological humor, and the odd magical-realist twist. It's an epic in its own right, it's certainly one of the most unique books I've ever read, and I would be remiss if I told people to pass this up. So if you think you might like it, by all means, give it a try. Order it or borrow it, though-- I don't think it's the kind of thing you can find in a library, but please, read this book.
- Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clowes
- The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman
- Thunderer by Felix Gilman
- The Tetherballs of Bougainville by Mark Leyner
- A top-secret project
AND MUCH MORE
*Not even going to begin to touch whether these are true or false
**It depends on whether the guy named "Two Dogs Fucking" is a reference to the older brother of One-Man-Bucket from Reaper Man...it'd fit, certainly