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Hell: A Novel Paperback – October 12, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Prolific Pulitzer–winner Butler features a colorful cast of underworld dwellers in his latest novel, and, as in Severance and Intercourse, captures stream-of-consciousness in delicious, unleashed rhythm. On the downside, Butler pushes his love for thematic concept to new levels of explicit puppetry (read: gimmick). Hatcher McCord, an anchorman on the Evening News from Hell, reports on hellishly banal traumas while real-life persons suffer hilarious punishment: Adolf Hitler is repeatedly executed, only to be reassembled gruesomely, his face like a stitched football. All are ruled by a smarmy, Armani-clad Satan who smells noxiously of Old Spice aftershave, is only reachable by voice mail and blames everything on his father issues. But when McCord discovers that Satan can't read his mind, McCord becomes a vehicle for free will. Newly empowered, he attempts sexual and emotional relations with the love of his afterlife, a headless Anne Boleyn who gives great (if terrifying) oral sex. Butler's lust for the tabloid romp and his stream of the never-ending punch line both irritates and illuminates. The reader's taste will have to be the final arbiters of worth. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"I'll never stop believing it: Robert Olen Butler is the best living American writer, period." -- Jeff Guinn
"The number of novels and short-story collections about the Vietnam War is now approaching five hundred. Were I to recommend a single volume that poignantly shows the magnitude and the humanity of the tragedy, it would be this one." -- John Clark Pratt
"The book has attracted such acclaim not simply because it is beautifully and powerfully written, but because it convincingly pulls off an immense imaginative risk.... Butler has not entered the significant and ever-growing canon of Vietnam-related fiction (he has long been a member)--he has changed its composition forever." -- Claire Messud
"No writer in America today can be said to surpass Butler in the eating-his-cake-and-having-it-too category: He's literary and entertaining, serious and funny. Within his clear and fluent narratives, there usually nestles complexity, if you care to look for it." -- Chauncey Mabe
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Butler's view of Hell is that it's full of people, almost all people that have ever lived. They're tormented, but not really too much. People occasionally catch on fire or are caught in a flaming sulfurous rain or feel compelled to throw themselves off of a building, but it's still a far cry from a Bosch painting.
Hell in this novel is really about compulsion. Bill Clinton is forced to unzip and wait for any woman to come by, Anne Boleyn is still obsessed with Henry VIII (although nominally she is Hatcher, the protagonist's, girlfriend). J. Edgar Hoover still cross-dresses.
There is very little retribution or punishment in this hell, other than a little Hitler hunting. The punishments that are inflicted on individuals are more psychological and personal than societal.
The main character is a TV anchorman named Hatcher. His job gives him carte blanche to travel around Hell and meet interesting people, with Dick Nixon as his autohomicidal chauffeur, no less. Along the way he discovers that he has free will because Satan cannot read his mind. He then sets out on a quest to reach heaven, loosely aided by Judas Iscariot and Virgil, among others. He sets out to accomplish this by contacting his ex-wives to find out what was wrong with him.
What happens when he achieves his goal is what the book's really about. What is heaven? What is hell? And maybe, just a little bit of what is life? That's the question that the author really tries to poke at, I think, although I'm not sure how successful he really was at that. The ending was a little predictable, IMHO, although where he places the road to heaven is kind of novel.
All in all, a good read with great descriptive passages and a surprisingly strong set of characters, although maybe not so surprising, given that he had all of history to work with. Anyone who likes Vonnegut or Tom Wolfe would probably like this book.
For the record, the Kindle formatting was atrocious, dropping letters all over the page.
Hatcher lives with Anne Boleyn, whose beauty—when her head is attached to her body—instils within him an vehement arousal, a desire for a coupling that is never to be satiated—such is the nature of Robert Olen Butler's hell.
The inhabitants continually ponder the problem of why they are there, what they did to deserve their predicament, and why everyone, even the most pious of humanity, seemed to have been sentenced to an eternity in the pit. Hatcher begins to realise that Old Nick is not as omnipresent as he had thought, and investigates the rumour of a back-door. Hatcher's adventure leads him to encounter artists and philosophers, ex-presidents and ex-wives with ironic and humorous consequences. The story culminates in a wonderful twist, a realisation that is both gratifying and profound.
The protagonist is the nightly news guy for Hell. He is maneuvered through various situations to make him a better person which sort of works. In the end he comes to grips with a resolution to his deliema.
The book is well written, but it kind of left me with what's the point. Several interesting scenes (hunting with the Devil is a hoot), but the ending was disappointing. To be fair, a hard story to end in a satisfactory way.