I finally bought a copy of American Idol (Black Bed Sheet Books, 2011) by S.C. Hayden at this year’s World Horror Convention, something I have been meaning to do for a while. I had read part of it in manuscript form last year as a submission to Montag Press; I liked it enough to enthusiastically recommend publishing it before I was even halfway done, but was chagrined to find that Black Bed Sheet beat us to the punch. That being the case, I vowed to pay real American dollars for the final version in book form, and I happily did so at WHC. (Full details of that trip, including meeting S.C. Hayden and Black Bed Sheets honcho Nicholas Grabowsky, can be found in an earlier post.)
I have since read the whole thing, and yeah, I really liked this book. It is one of the more unconventional and straight-up fun, and often funny, books I’ve read in a while, bristling with irreverence – literally, as Hayden mocks every major religion I can think of and goes after the very notion of organized religion itself.
American Idol tells the story of two friends and a sister who revive the practice of idolatry, not because they believe in it as a spiritual system, but purely for profit (and maybe a little provocation too). This simple premise sets the stage for commentary on many aspects of our modern culture, primarily faith and commerce. And Hayden certainly has a lot to say.
A few surprising plot twists really change the tenor of the story as it unfolds. The general mood ranges from hilariously anarchic tweaking of values and beliefs to more somber and emotional passages, before arriving at a decidedly surreal climax. Hayden starts many chapters with quotes from religious texts like The Bible and The Koran, as well as relevant quotes from folks as diverse as L. Ron Hubbard, Nietzsche, and Tom Waits. A number of the quotes had me thinking they must surely be a joke, but every time I Googled them, I found they were authentic. Wow.
Hayden has a laid-back and conversational writing style that is well-suited to the story and its multiple digressions. At times I was reminded of the great Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. Faith, loyalty, synchronicities, and strange numerology as well as shifting perspectives and voices figure into both works. American Idol isn’t nearly as Byzantine or completely over the top as Illuminatus!, but the parallels are there, I think.
My only real complaint is with the physical book itself. As with so many small press books, there are a number of typos throughout. Nothing that makes passages unintelligible or anything like that, but as a layout guy, these things are hard for me to ignore. If you are not an editor or designer, you probably won’t be distracted by them, and they certainly shouldn’t impede your enjoyment of the story.
It probably goes without saying, but this is not a book for the easily offended. Hayden’s targets of parody and scorn are many, and odds are you or someone you love falls into at least one of the many groups within his sights. Hopefully you can take a joke, because this is a book worth reading. There is a great deal of interesting ideas and thought-provoking commentary to be found in these pages, along with an enjoyable and engrossing plot involving well-written characters. A book that can’t really be pigeon-holed in a distinct genre, American Idol should appeal to anyone with a sense of humor, an open mind, and an interest in the absurdities of modern American culture.