by Dale E. Basye
288 pages, Yearling
Review by Melissa Conway
“Having a sister was weird. It was like having a heart-shaped bruise.” So says just-turned-eleven year-old Milton Fauster about his “thirteen going on thirty-year-old” sister Marlo, a bad seed who drags her hapless little bro down with her into Heck after an unfortunate marshmallow-bear explosion.
“Heck is where the souls of the darned toil for all eternity—or until they turn eighteen, whichever comes first,” says Principal Bea “Elsa” Bubb. In Heck, Demons wield pitchsporks, the cafeterium serves over-cooked Brussels Sprouts, and even toddlers have been judged and assigned to a KinderScare facility. Richard Nixon teaches Ethics and Lizzie Borden Home Economics.
In this, his first novel, author Dale E. Basye was apparently determined to pack as many puns as possible into the narrative, with a plethora of descriptive phrases so adjective and adverb-intense I sometimes lost the gist of the sentence and had to re-read to get the full effect. For instance, it could just be me, but try to read the following straight through just once with full comprehension: “A terrible grating metal squeak sliced through the cavern as an ornate iron decorated gate with sugared spikes, candied skulls, and barbed licorice labored open roughly forty feet behind the stage.” I don’t know about you, but I had to go back and wrap my mind around that gate.
And yeesh, the double-entendres and triple-entendres just wouldn’t stop coming. Take this almost overbearingly puntastic sentence, “Warped hula-hoops, two-wheeled tricycles, deflated basketballs, not-so-Hot Wheels, well-mannered Bratz, ex-Xboxes, and an astounding collection of Russian poetry lay scattered across the dingy grey carpet.”
In adult literature, clichés are frowned upon, but here in Juvenile Fictionland, the more warped but still-recognizable the clichés, the better. And this book is “juvenile” fiction in the true spirit of the word, as author Basye doesn’t hesitate to cross the gross line into disgusting territory. From the sulfur water that’s “like drinking a fart,” to phrases like “…mind over fecal matter,” and, (dear Lord, yes,) a VILE description of our hero narrowly avoiding getting shat upon by none other than Principal Bubb herself as he is attempting to escape Heck through the sewer system.
I have to comment on some editing issues that fully distracted me (being as how I’m a writer who learned the rules the hard way: by committing each and every sin Pat Holt so succinctly lays out in his “Ten Mistakes” article here). Basye is fond of heavy use of his characters’ names instead of going with a personal pronoun where applicable. So, Marlo did this, Marlo did that, and Marlo did the other thing; where I would have been comfortable reading how Marlo did this, she did that and she did the other thing. And there was a lot of head-hopping going on; where instead of sticking to one person’s point of view, the author slipped between characters’ thoughts within the same chapter. This is a sin strictly forbidden to first-time novelists, but Basye’s editor seems to have forgiven it, maybe because the writing is bursting with those relentless (and sometimes quite clever) puns, and some people do love to groan.
Heck is a foul, vulgar place, despite the humor Basye uses to describe it, and maybe some of his young readers will come away from the mild underlying moral of the story (Be Good or Else), with a renewed appreciation for…well…the possibility of eternal consequences. I sincerely doubt the real Heck is as much pun.