On Saturday, May 20, 2000, a group of armed men and women in fatigues and black hoods opens fire on a music festival in Wichita, Kansas’s South Riverside Park, killing eighty-six men, women and children. In the wake of this tragedy comes a media frenzy far too similar to the ones we of the twenty-first century have become accustomed to seeing. The frenzy, however, surrounds not the atrocity that occurs, or the subsequent aftermath and investigation, but a single, uninjured individual at the heart of the carnage, notable only because he is “laughing his ass off” on the video camera of a dying victim. So begins Bradley Denton’s furious yet hilarious novel Laughin’ Boy, originally published by Subterranean Press in 2005 but available now in paperback from Wheatland Press.
Laughin’ Boy is Danny Clayton, a technical writing teacher at a community college and the sufferer of a peculiar affliction which causes him to laugh at moments of anxiety. Reviled by citizens, politicians and the media after the Wichita Massacre (as the incident comes to be called), he is taken into custody by the FBI and begins treatment with a married team of media-hungry pop psychologists who ostensibly want to help treat him but have no problem using him to promote themselves on Jerry-Springer-like talk shows and in Internet chat rooms.
Everybody from shock radio hosts to politicians to tabloid news shows wants some kind of exposure to Danny Clayton, even if it means hounding his ex-wife and daughter. Indeed, the only people who don’t seem thrilled by the media’s attention on Clayton (apart from Clayton himself) are the members of the White Warriors for Jesus, Deceased (WWJD) who committed the atrocity; believing that Laughin’ Boy has stolen their spotlight, they offer a reward for his murder.
Denton’s insights into media-saturated America are so accurate that they’re almost more chilling than satirical. As in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy or John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Laughin’ Boy’s point of view cuts between radio and television talk show transcripts, internet chats, web browsing, newsgroup posts and Clayton’s therapy sessions, giving the reader multiple views of transpiring events. The communications landscape is awash with speculation from all walks of life, from the lowliest Usenet trolls to the highest-rated late-night television host, and yet there is very little understanding.
And Denton is, at least until the final pages, unflinching in his attacks against each. In this sense, the novel reads like a twenty-first century Bonfire of the Vanities, with everybody more interested in making sure their voices are heard rather than actually trying to comprehend what they are learning.
Good, too, is Denton’s ear for dialogue and his sense of character. Because the satirical lines are obviously drawn, Danny Clayton at times seems in danger of becoming a Mary Sue, but Denton always manages to reel him back in.
With Laughin’ Boy, Denton gives us a powerful portrayal of what can go wrong with our ability to communicate immediately. He seems to be telling us that, despite the potential for sudden information, the cacophony of voices have made it nearly impossible to wring sense from nonsense. It’s a statement we need to hear.