Hendrix, Grady. My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2016.
Last week, I finished reading Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and it was a breath of fresh air. Hendrix somehow captured my essence in the 330 pages of his book; he masterfully illustrated all of my little loves, as well as the quirks and colors that make life so vivid: the novel's words burst with 80s pop culture, rollerskating references, music, the supernatural & horror, love, friendship, and humor - all wrapped up perfectly in the cover art and end-papers of his book.
Hendrix had my attention before page one. The cover art perfectly evokes the attitude of his book. The grid of awkward black and white yearbook-style photos of teens in their 80s-fashion-best provides a background for the exuberant greens, yellows, and pinks of the title. It’s the cover’s contrasts that make it so striking. Top and center, standing out from the strained and stiff faces of her classmates, is a portrayal of Gretchen - back-turned, in the throws of possession. The black and white provides a visual representation of the stereotypical fight between good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, as well as presents a sense of foreboding; however, the vibrancy of the title and the hot pink of the spine elicit the story’s playfulness and 80s awesomeness. The end-papers continue the fun with all of the irony, humor, and teen angst found in high school yearbook signatures. For example, Jeni tells Gretchen that “Mr. Goat wants to touch [her] with his damp mustache. Be careful [she doesn’t] have his love child this summer.” Hendrix realistically renders the absurdity of inside jokes (and bad jokes). Furthermore, in a more entertaining way, he does something similar to what Ian McEwan does, by including a bogus journal article and references in Enduring Love, by, instead, including yearbook pages. Hendrix’s inclusion of imitated documents seems more purposeful in creating an amusing atmosphere; however, it still lends itself to the idea that all fiction is fiction. And yet, I have to love the paradox that some of life’s most ever-present truths are more easily deciphered through fiction.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism never loses the initial pace it sets with its cover and end-pages. On page 9, the story begins with “The exorcist is dead,” and with that one, simple sentence the reader is hooked. Not to mention that the first chapter title, as well as all the others, conjures music and lyrics; Hendrix's chapter headings provide the reader with an excellent sound track with songs including “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds, “We Got the Beat” by the Go-Gos, “Sunday Blood Sunday” by U2, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M., and “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany.
In fact, the more I revisit the incidents of Abby and Gretchen’s friendship, the more I fall in love with it. It is a friendship that springs from an E.T.-themed, rollerskating birthday party that no one, but Gretchen, with a Children’s Bible as a gift , shows up to and flourishes to life in Abby’s head with “We Got the Beat,” completely misinterpreted lyrics, and backwards skating. This is how Abby and “the weird new kid” become best friends (13). As they grow into teenagers, they bond, as girls do, through sleep overs, late-night phone calls, reading and watching scandalous books and shows, inside jokes and music. Then, in their sophomore year, they, and a couple friends, drop acid for the first time, Gretchen disappears in the woods, and life becomes markedly different.
In the beginning, Gretchen displays all of the typical signs of possession, including excessive bleeding, hearing voices, outbreaks of acne, and projectile vomiting, but when her appearance clears, the danger escalates. She manipulates one friend into attempting suicide by trying to jump from a bell tower; she poisons another friend with tapeworms; and sets Abby up for stealing a dead baby from a hospital on their anatomy field trip. The tapeworm scene between Abby and Margaret is fascinatingly disgusting, and the Hot Dog on a Stick scene between Abby and the hot-pink-fanny-pack-wearing, bodybuilding exorcist is equally entertaining in its hilarity. Yet, when the exorcism actually begins, I was afraid I was going to be disappointed by its conclusion. I feared a predictable ending. That, however, is not what I received.
The exorcism initiates with Brother Lemon manhandling Gretchen - tying her to a bed, praying over her, throwing sanctified salt in her face - and progresses to this giant specimen of a man running away to his daddy, leaving Abby alone with Gretchen, who, in the most irreproachable moment ever written, infusing me with envy at Hendrix's wit, begins singing, “I think we’re alone now. There doesn’t seem to be anyone aroun-ound. I think we’re alone now, the beating of our hearts is the only sou-und...” (295).
This is where it gets good and where I was pleasantly surprised. When Abby and Gretchen are alone, Abby begins reading from the exorcist’s directions and Bible that he left behind in his haste. As Abby begins to pray over Gretchen, the demon falls upon well-used tricks of the imagination - roaches rushing from Gretchen’s open mouth but, even better, the image of a hand emerging from her mouth, extending to a forearm, struggling to pull a body from her splitting face. Abby stops; she can’t stand the thought of hurting Gretchen’s body any more. And just when Abby gives up, and you think it’s over, and the novel’s going to end in some stereotypical way with the demon living on in Gretchen’s body or transferring to Abby - Abby miraculously rebounds. And in a fashion that I can only associate with Mabel from Gravity Falls, my daughter’s favorite cartoon (which I happen to equally enjoy), Abby rises up and defeats the demon with a poorly quoted rendition of “We Got the Beat” and alluding to inside jokes between Gretchen and herself (including a reference to a porno Abby found in her dad’s closet) and Phil Collins. Abby doesn’t attend church, and it’s not the power of the Bible or prayer that saves Gretchen; it’s the power of love and friendship. That seems simplistic, but it’s fantastic.
At the end of the novel, Abby and Gretchen have continued their friendship into old age, and the narrator says, “Abby and Gretchen still kept up, but it was phone calls and letters, then postcards and voicemail, and finally emails and Facebook likes. There was no falling-out, no great tragedy, just a hundred thousand trivial moments they didn’t share, each one an inch of distance between them, and eventually those inches added up to miles... [when major events happened], they learned that although those inches may add up to miles, sometimes those miles were only inches after all” (327). Real love and friendship persist throughout time, throughout separation, throughout fights and jealousy, throughout all of the obstacles life throws. And I feel like the ultimate take-away from this novel is that love is what we live for, not necessarily romantic love, but all the other major or minor loves in our lives - the references to 80s pop culture, music, art, and, if we’re lucky, our family and friends, and if we’re extra lucky, a partner. I also like to think that this presents the concept that, if there is a God, which Brother Lemon definitely believes in (check page 326), that perhaps He’s not as self-righteous as people want to believe. Maybe He’s more concerned with people choosing the right thing, which I know is subjective, but love or kindness over the limitless numbers of bad choices we can make - revenge, hatred, lies. Abby’s love for and relationship with Gretchen is far more divine than Abby’s not going to church, or the girls trying LSD, or having sex, or joking about "Bad Mama Jama’s supper in the oven” is sinful (309). I’d like to think that God would appreciate humankind’s ability to love or our ability to suffer physical, emotional, and/or psychological pain and persist, far more than He would our ability to worship His omnipotence. In any case, you should read this book.
There’s no way you’ll be disappointed.