Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler takes a crack at the underworld in a hit-and-miss new novel.
To be satisfying, a novel must have more than the sprightly, less-than-divine comedy Robert Olen Butler offers in Hell. Hell is really just a gag, with a drawn-out punch line that we’ve all heard before.
Things get off to a rollicking start when Beelzebub introduces the main character, Hatcher McCord, anchorman for the “Evening News from Hell.” We quickly learn that in mortal life Hatcher held a similar job—and that in the underworld he is tormented by seeing the words “poopy butt” on the teleprompter. On air, Hatcher poses a question: Why are the members of his audience in hell? More to the point, given the character list of this novel: Why does everyone you ever heard of in the 1990s end up in hell?
A secondary plot-engine-type question soon follows, raising the reader’s hopes that our hero might yet escape the abyss: “Is Hell expecting a Heavenly visitor? Will there be a new Harrowing?” Intrepid investigative reporter that he is, Hatcher will strive to find out. And get out, if at all possible.
For his version of Hades, Butler—with a nod to Dante and the Bible—takes his cue from pop culture. Hell is a place where bookstores go out of business as soon as they open. Cerberus is a three-headed Jack Russell terrier. Bill Clinton’s eternal damnation consists of waiting in a cheap hotel room for “a young woman—any young woman” to come through the door. In street brawls, gangs of black men wear white preppie clothing. Some of this is downright amusing, but pop culture is hard to get right without the material eventually coming to sound dated. (Reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for example, you can imagine that plans for subsidizing the calendar—viz. “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”—are just now getting underway in Congress.) When Butler introduces a little fo’shizzle into his description of hell, I find myself wondering if my mom has also started using that word.
There’s no laundry in Butler’s inferno. When people suffer messy, painful deaths, Hatcher waits for their blood to whisk away from his clothing and jump back into their bodies. He, too, will be killed and immediately “reconstituted” in the course of the novel. One day, Hatcher discovers that his mind remains his own private universe, even in hell—and while this intellectual freedom gives Butler’s story much-needed breathing room, it leads to little in the way of development. What you get in the beginning of Hell is pretty much what you have in the end, with the punch line coming in the final pages.
(Hint: Hell is other __________. Sorry, the _________ made me do it.)
The logic of Hell is a bit loosey-goosey. The netherworld’s “denizens” (a word Butler uses to distraction) may or may not take the form they had at death, may or may not be thinking up their own torments, and may or may not be deserving of punishment. Butler introduces a love interest in the person of Anne Boleyn, Hatcher’s headless housemate (readers of Butler’s short story collection Severance, take note)—but actually, Anne’s head, though detachable, sits on her shoulders much of the time.
For a condemned sinner, Hatcher is surprisingly gentlemanly, conscientious, and kind. But then, in a Hades inhabited by Richard M. Nixon (Hatcher’s limo driver), Mother Theresa, Jerry Seinfeld, and William Shakespeare, who’s to say what “deserving” means? Among the fictional denizens is a Frenchified succubus who devours men after coitus (watch out, Hatcher!), Hatcher’s three ex-wives, and his mother. “It is only in pain that we are all truly connected, and when the pain ends, we are alone,” he reflects, in what may be the novel’s most philosophical moment.
Butler is a prolific author, producing a new novel or story collection every two years. He’s also very readable, and Hell goes down as easily as the cherry Pop Tarts that flavor Satan’s breath. After you’ve digested damnation, settle in for some quality time with his 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Closely observed detail gives characters such as Thâp, a Viet Cong turncoat, the menacing heft that Butler’s cartoonish Satan lacks. In “Open Arms,” Thâp undergoes interrogation while “smoking one Chesterfield cigarette after another, careful about keeping his ash from falling on the floor, never really looking at either of us, not in the eye, only occasionally at our hands, a quick glance, like he expected us to suddenly be holding a weapon.”
It’s that kind of writing that makes me think I’ve died and gone to heaven.