Review: “Hell” by Robert Olen Butler

Title: Hell
Author: Robert Olen Butler
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Grove Press, 2009

First off, thanks to the good people at ARCycling and to Mariela O. for getting me this book. Free books are always a cause for thanks, regardless of what I end up thinking of the book itself. In this case….well, my reaction was just incredibly ambivalent. Robert Olen Butler is apparently a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, but at least in this case I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. There are a few laughs throughout this work of satire, but on the whole its cynical view of human nature just depressed me. In fact, the back text “Tweets from Hell” which appeared nowhere in the actual novel was the funniest part, I thought.

Who’s in Hell? It seems like pretty darn near everyone, from Bill Clinton to Mother Theresa, and everyone wants to know why they ended up there. Hatcher McCord, as Satan’s top newscaster, has the job of interviewing all these wonderful folks and asking them that one simple question: “Why are you here?” But even though he works directly for the devil, Hell is no picnic–there’s the occasional rain of sulfuric acid to deal with, for example, or the unpredictable day/night cycle. There’s the couple living next door, eternally confined to their La-Z-Boys and bickering at each other loudly when anyone walks by. The one bright spot in McCord’s dismal reality is his girlfriend, Anne Boleyn, and even there everything is far from rosy. She’s fixated on her ex-husband, Henry VIII, for one thing. For another, it seems physically impossible to have satisfying sex in Hell….though that doesn’t stop anybody from trying. What is Hell like? Oddly enough, it’s a lot like everyday life, just without the good bits and with a lot more chaos and a higher temperature. Apparently Dante took quite a few dramatic liberties after his escape. You spend your time doing things much like you did in life, only without the hope of things turning out alright. J. Edgar Hoover runs the Devil’s surveillance service. Humphrey Bogart spends most of his time in the guise of one or another of his characters, always looking for Lauren Bacall. McCord gets to give the evening news, but the teleprompter is always trying to trip him up. One day, however, everything changes. McCord discovers that his private thoughts are his own and not, as everyone assumes, being monitored by the Diabolical One. Furthermore, there may be a way out of Hell….if only he can find it.

My reaction? Decidedly “meh,” unfortunately. I had high hopes for the comedy value here, apparently too high as it turned out. There were some laughs, sure, but quite a few of them were uncomfortable ones. I wasn’t bothered by the horrid theology–that was expected. What bothered me far more was the cynicism inherent in the tale. Heaven turns out to be a place of contented numbness, much like any anti-depressant based dystopia. The way out of Hell appears to be simply the act of trying to escape. And it doesn’t seem that anyone, not one person, made the cut and escaped being consigned to Hell’s flames. There are digs handed out at public figures left and right, historical and contemporary, significant and not so much. Those, at times, were humorous. Not enough so to salvage this book for me, but at least a little bit. I got the impression the author had some grand truth (or at least some grand assertion) that he wanted to reveal about human nature, but never quite got the curtain to come unhooked.

CONTENT: R-rated language. Explicit sexual content, typically strange and grotesque enough not to be arousing. Strong violence. Occult content….well, the majority of the book is literally set in Hell, so….

 

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