Hilda and Benji are loners and best friends because of their shared interest: death. They troll the streets of Los Angeles to view sites of celebrity murder and suicide. When the two meet a misanthropic and reclusive old man named Hank, their relationship starts to change. As Hilda spends more time with Hank, Benji’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and potentially dangerous. The more Hilda discovers that there’s more to life than death, the more obsessed Benji becomes with proving her wrong.
Kathy Charles’s John Belushi is Dead is a backlist title that should still be circulating a lot. It’s outstanding, and it’s one that will resonate with a wide variety of readers. Compelling, edgy, and mor than a little bit dark, this is great for the older YA set.
Strong prose helps bring to life the characters that populate the book. Hilda is the narrator and is well drawn. She’s a complete character with a full backstory that allows readers insight into why she is the way she is (and why she’s so consumed with the concept of death). But what works so well here is how Charles allows Hilda’s perceptions of the people she knows to filter what the reader knows about what’s happening. Not everyone is quite what they seem, and while this is certainly a theme explored throughout the novel, it never overpowers the main story. In fact, it’s used to great effect.
The story is also really smartly done. Charles uses Los Angeles itself as one of the characters. An iconic city filled with the world’s most famous stars makes for a compelling backdrop as Hilda figures out some of life’s hardest realities. The use of the strangeness of the city to help illustrate Hilda and Benji’s feelings of being outsiders is powerful and memorable.
On the whole, this is a gem of a book. It’s quirky without being cloying, dark without being overwhelmingly bleak, and beautifully complex. Guaranteed to push some readers out of their comfort zone, it’s also compulsively readable. Highly recommended.
John Belushi is Dead by Kathy Charles. MTV Books: 2010. Library copy.