Rewriting Dante’s allegorical La Divina Commedia would be one hell of an ambitious endeavor (pardon the pun) for even the most accomplished of writers, so when you attempt something like that with your debut novel, you’d better have the right amount of skill, balls, wit and eschatological jokes at your disposal… turns out Anthony McGowan has all of those – something the cat already knew after reading Henry Tumour. Unfortunately, even though this novel starts out brilliantly, McGowan can’t keep up the sizzling & hilarious pace of it until the end of the ride.
Hellbent features 15-year-old Conor who’s ended up in hell after being run down by an ice cream truck. Turns out living your life like a normal teenager (a few fibs now and then and some other innocent enough teenage misdemeanor sins) might be enough to end up eternally in hell. For some hell is other people, but for Conor, Hell is boredom and being surrounded by classical music and educational books about history, philosophy, anthropology and so on. Though Conor is accompanied by his faithful – though completely useless – mutt of a dog Scrote (Arsecheese!), and assisted by his personal devil Clarence, it is the elusive Francesca who makes the most of an impression on Conor in his search for a way out of hell (it must be Love). Somewhere out there in the innermost circles of hell, there must be someone for whom Conor’s hell is like heaven, and obviously somewhere out there, there is someone whose own personal hell is Conor’s idea of heaven… It’s up to Conor to find a way out so he sets out on a adventure with Clarence and a Viking called Olaf.
Anthony McGowan clearly wants to make an impression with his debut: it’s comedy, it’s an adventure story, it’s an imaginative rewriting of a classic most kids will never have heard of and definitely an attempt at an almost philosophical treatise all in one. The cat wishes that books with eschatological humor, and existential references to the Divine Comedy had existed and had been so readily available when she was 15 (“Not suitable for younger children”, up yours!), because for the idea alone this is a book that deserves to be read. The raucous fart and zit jokes are just a bonus here… And the execution of it all starts off with a couple of laugh-out-loud funny scenes (prepare for the most hilariously funny fart story in a children’s or other book ever!). However, divine it ain’t… unlike in Henry Tumour, McGowan isn’t really able to sustain the level of intensity until the very end… Hell and Conor’s soul searching tend to become a little bit tedious.
Nevertheless, knowing what Hellbent led to (both Henry Tumour and The Knife that Killed Me are highly recommended!), the cat recognizes that McGowan’s take on the afterlife is a great first attempt. It sags at times, but has some great highs too. Kudos for telling it as it is: hell is shit, long live hell.