Out of Print Review: The Last Drug Trial on Earth by Justin A Burnett

Written in the form of an open letter


Writers are the worst judges of their work. What they love, others might hate. What triggers indifference in them might incite fervent admiration from readers. Sometimes it’s easier to thrust a work into the wild and see what happens. And sometimes it’s devastating to put so much work into a novel to see few sales, reviews, and little hype.

Such is the publishing business, especially in the digital age.

But here’s the thing:

The Last Drug Trial on Earth is fucking good, man. I’m not blowing smoke up your ass. As I read it, I kept thinking it could have been a weird slice of life about a Youtuber as written by Charlie Kaufman. Brad, the protagonist, reminds me of me in a weird way—a slacker crippled by anxiety and addicted to Xanax and other anxiety and depression meds, a man both inspired to live an ambitious life and lacking little drive or desire or follow-through.

He’s a great character: likable, intelligent, flawed, at times frustrating.

The story plays multiple games here, follows several streams as they wind into the same river—it’s one of the things I love about this novel: it’s straightforward and unpretentious yet injected with enough experimentalism to keep things interesting. And “interesting,” to my mind, is the gold standard w/r/t criteria concerning literature and art.

So ostensibly we’re following Brad in a not-too-distant future. He’s a slacker and a pillhead, who indiscriminately spends his parents’ money while reveling in the online world of social media and meme-inducing videos. He and his friends, including his brother—I’m not sure why I’m telling you this; you wrote the fucking book!—either stream and perform wild, illegal stunts in search of the ever elusive online audience. His brother Zeke experiences a nasty wipeout which lands him in the hospital and sends Brad spiraling into a manic state. Snitching to the police, his life threatened, Brad further spirals downward as he collapses in on himself and seeks to keep and to maintain his benzo high. And in the background—rising, ever rising to the foreground—extraterrestrial intelligence is on the verge of revealing itself to humans.

Brad’s character works so well because there’s always a disjunct splitting the real and the ideal. Brad’s problems remain on the surface yet the causes of his problems—his reckless behavior and inability to accept responsibility for his actions—remain aloof, at least to him. He’s always in the verge, but never quite willing, to accept himself as the trickster in his folklore of the self, so to speak.

Although I’m writing this letter to you, I’m also publishing it as a sort of book review/plea to re-publish the novel, so I’m not going to go into too much detail concerning the novel’s plot. The Last Drug Trial on Earth is best approached without prior knowledge. Spoiling it would commit a disservice to you and to any future readers—see how optimistic I am?

But I’d like to make a few more—spoiler free—comments in favor of this novel.

First, the energy. This isn’t a tired narrative—or narrator. Years ago, when Dave Eggers published A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a reviewer praised its energy, stating—I don’t remember the quote so this isn’t verbatim—that it’s narrative contained enough energy to power a freight train. I kept thinking of that phrase as I read, and re-read, Drug Trial. You tell the story with love, passion, and a sort of benign hypomania.

Although Brad is a slacker, although he’s lost, in a sense, and often high on Xanax and other meds, he possesses a kind of covert joie de vivre manifested as pure energy while he tells his story. I didn’t note any parallels, but I continually recalled the narrator’s enthusiasm in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger.

Your world building is also worth appreciating here: as in the work of Philip K Dick, specifically A Scanner Darkly, your world is reminiscent of ours while studded with plausible sci-fi gems. The technology, such as the hProjector, is new and unique while bringing to mind smartphones. But, interestingly, the world as a whole paints a striking and stark portrait.

This is a world dominated by social media and video games, VR and consumerism, in which everyone owns name brand and designer clothes and jewelry and tech and all of modern life’s unnecessary accoutrements.

Combined, the disparate elements join to portray a dystopian world in which we serve as virtual entertainment for others to consume while we consume extravagant products vomited into stores, and our lives, by multi-headed corporations. Although never stated, this world, which mirrors ours, establishes oppressive boundaries and expectations. Relying on prescription drugs to manage our psychological well-being logically follows such dark and depressing premises.

But this isn’t an overtly bleak or dour novel; it’s also fun, exciting, thrilling, inspiring, and funny. That The Last Drug Trial on Earth is no longer in print is a travesty. You should re-publish it. It’s one of the best indie novels I’ve ever read. Republish it.

Cordially yours,



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