Let’s get this out of the way, Jon Bassoff’s “The Drive-Thru Crematorium” (Eraserhead Press, 2019) is not in the crime fiction genre and that’s okay. Felonious assaults might be what brought you here but hopefully, you’re more interested in great writing than a trope police procedural or serial killer novel.
Before one reads the first words of Bassoff’s new book, one is struck by the title and the cover. The collage of bent, twisted shapes and its dark earth tones is removed of any comfort by the eyes haphazardly staring back. (I find the eye in the upper left-hand side to be most disconcerting, but the others are gaining.) The conflicting makeup of the title with its ubiquitous “Drive-Thru” and the known but unfamiliar “Crematorium” is genius.
For a short book, “The Drive-Thru Crematorium” is meaty in flesh and words. In the opening chapter, the main character while in the office is forgotten about at his job, “Stanley Maddux had worked at Evergreen Lending for six years before they forgot who he was.” Things don’t escalate in anger or violence, they rudderlessly move along mapping to Maddux’s non-descript life in a nondescript house. Maddux, or Mallory as he’s constantly referred to at a job that is not a job, responds not as a man who’s been beaten down, he responds as a man who has gone through life unnoticed and invisible. Maddux achieves all of this without wanting or trying.
As each chapter ends, the story in “The Drive-Thru Crematorium” shifts but turns unlike our regular day may stray: a screwed-up order at the coffee shop, another weekly strategy change at work, or the unspooled weed wacker that beats you gain. The normalcy that is Maddux’s life is instead challenged by bloody rabbits, people disappearing from photographs, and, of course, the Lifebridge Drive-Thru Mortuary and Crematorium. Even though Maddux is the milquetoast that sits a few bar stools down from you and orders a Bud Lite, Bassoff entrances us.
If I had one problem with the book it was the use of the albino character. But in the context of the story and how Bassoff plays out “The Drive-Thru Crematorium”, the character could have been nothing but an albino. In the right hands, sometimes tropes work.
Bassoff’s “The Drive-Thru Crematorium” has the weirdness of Vonnegut and the dreaminess of Bradbury. Like these other authors, Bassoff takes the man out of the suburbs and twists his reality irreparably. The epigraph of “The Drive-Thru Crematorium” is from Joseph Campbell:
The happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation; for the world, as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of the forms that we have loved.
There is no going back for Maddox even though he’s willing to work without a desk or even wages. He’s always willing to continue to mildly please. No, his life is headed toward the promised disintegration and dismemberment, and Bassoff kills it.