Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Going to ‘Hell’: Butler’s new novel makes an introspective but ‘quick and easy’ read

by Robert Olen Butler
Grove Press Publishers, 2009
Hardcover, 232 pages

Robert Olen Butler’s new novel is a largely humorous, often introspective journey through a 21st-century hell that is waiting for the next Harrowing. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his short story collection “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” Butler now follows Hatcher McCord through the bureaucracy, frustrations and disappointments of hell, revealing an eerily familiar world in which pain is prominent, but more as an unsatisfying respite from the torments of memory than a physical inconvenience.

Butler is hailed as a “literary Houdini” by Boston Book Review and “Hell” clearly employs humor as a successful misdirection, guiding readers away from a serious consideration of the horrors of banality and repetition, which Butler acknowledges are far worse than the physical tortures of Dante’s hell.

Hatcher McCord inhabits a somewhat painful, yet dully repetitive afterlife in which he and his post-life partner (an often headless or body-less Anne Boleyn) are serenaded by cockroaches in their apartment and can never achieve a fulfilling sexual interaction. When not at home Hatcher works as a newscaster with the “Evening News from Hell,” where his successful series “Why Do You Think You’re Here?” secures him an interview with Satan: a gun-toting figure wearing Armani jeans and a flannel shirt. During the interview, in which Satan speaks vaguely of his “father issues” and gives Hatcher a friendly hug, Hatcher realizes an underworld secret that, in combination with a chance meeting with Dante’s Beatrice, drives him to think more about “How the hell do I get out?” rather than “Why the hell am I here?”

Butler inhabits Hatcher McCord’s hell with a bizarre and diverse cast of characters,  demonstrating the common, painful punishments that the damned must face as well as punishments that are strangely appropriate for each individual. “Hell” is packed with instances of ironic pain and suffering that, at its best, gives us the great writers and powerful leaders of the past forced to simply use modern technology (Shakespeare continuously losing his plays to computer crashes and Jezebel’s strange e-mail compulsion); and at its worst presents more modern figures as caricatures whose punishments fall with an awkward, all-too-easy and expected thud: “Snoop Dogg trying to mark the Dizzle’s rear whizzle but howling from the sizzle of his pizzle. Fo shizzle.”

What keeps “Hell” from being a mere parody of Dante’s “Inferno,” or just an outlet for those with fame or influence to suffer for entertainment, are the moments of introspection. “Hell” is interspersed with interior dialogue from, not only Hatcher, but also many of the famous or influential individuals that wound up in hell. These reflective moments are not concerned with excessive self-pity, but serve to remind us that even Judas has a story and his story is both surprising and thoroughly heartbreaking: “I know what’s next and he says ‘I will ask you to do a thing now that will make you wish you’d never been born’ and I say ‘If it’s what you need.'”

These streams of consciousness are most directly reminiscent of Butler’s short story collections “Severance” and “Intercourse” and though they contrast significantly with the crude humor of the primary narrative, they are a genuine relief from the hit or miss corporeal punishments of well-known figures.

“Hell” is a quick and easy read that would make any plane or car ride more enjoyable. Through the fog of sometimes childish: “Poopy butt, poopy butt, poopy butt”: yet often successful and intelligent humor, Butler succeeds in adjusting the always problematic “Why am I here?” into an investigation of personal forgiveness and a realization that suffering together is better than being comfortable alone.

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