Hell by Robert Olen Butler
“Yes,…the vast crowd here at the free concert finally couldn’t contain its anger. They’ve listened for hours to the All Star Polka Choir made up of Presley and Hendrix, Joplin and Marley and Jagger, Cobain and Shakur… all dressed in lederhosen and Alpine hats…. As you see, the crowd couldn’t take it any more….”
No, they couldn’t, not when Satan has devised so vicious a torture. And behind the reporter we can see the result: “a welter of bodies lunging and fighting and slashing” with “flying body parts.” It all hurts, oh yes, but it won’t end the pain. Won’t end the laughter, either -- I mean the reader’s laughter. This infernal ooom-pah-pah occurs in the Hell of Robert Olen Butler, a tour de force without end. Those torn parts will come back together, that is, “reconstitute.” These souls will all suffer again, in ways that usually fetch a chuckle.
Butler began his career with violence, in scary, intelligent novels that drew on his service in Vietnam. Do check out On Distant Ground, from 1985. Thereafter he risked both a new genre, the short story, and the enemy point of view. In Vietnamese perspective, he worked with those who’d fled to the US. This ’92 collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, proved a sensation, winning the Pulitzer Prize. Yet amid the praise heaped on the book there was little acknowledgement of its imagination. Good Scent was superb immigrant drama, but for the writer it was a long leap into fresh territory. Since then he’s pushed further from the mainstream, venturing into erotica (They Whisper, 1995), sci-fi/fantasy (Mr. Spaceman, 2000), and the spectacular story sequence Tabloid Dreams (1996).
Each of the Dreams derives from some surreal headline Butler spotted in the supermarket checkout, such as “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot.” The same sensibility informs the new novel, tragic in substance yet playful in approach. Even death and reconstitution won’t sooth a sore heart. So Hell strikes me as a breakthrough, because Butler plays his winning game at full length.
The subject matter would seem inimical toplot. After all, under the eternal sway of an omnipotent malevolence, whaddya gonna do? Butler responds by insisting on emotional content. His protagonist is anchorman of the Evening News from Hell, Hatcher McCord, just the sort of flimsy celebrity who might set us shouting, if he appeared on earthly screens. Yet if you prick a talking head, does he not bleed? Locating the narrative conscience in such a figure matches the daring of the premise. The story demands sympathy for Hatcher’s post-mortem growth of spirit. Investigative journalism among the damned may turn up something even the living need to know, namely, that no Lord controls everything we’re thinking, that in fact it’s we ourselves who must strike an interior harmony. Hatcher’s on the path of the Buddha, really. But in this case, every pitfall is played as slapstick.
The physical comedy goes beyond anything in all but a handful of American novels. The image of Jagger prancing through “The Polish Sausage Polka,” in lederhosen, is but the tip of Hell’s iceberg. Attempts at sex always end in frustration, given the locale, and they supply their share of belly laughs. Hatcher endures a shocking variation on fellatio, courtesy of his girlfriend Anne Boleyn, and downright destructive intercourse with a daughter of Lilith. Those two amours also give a good idea of the rogue’s gallery. The novel embraces the aesthetic of the more, the merrier -- indeed, the question of who-all’s in Hell emerges as a serious one, part of Hatcher’s evolution -- and the uncomfortable encounters include everyone from Nixon to Jezebel to Virgil.
That last figure, poet and tour guide, presents yet another daunting hurdle for Hell. The “anxiety of influence” is worse than ever, because how can any comedy stand up to the Divine? Butler manages, in part, by sticking with a prosaic style. His jam-packed alleys and roach-infested rooms come across quite vividly, there’s plenty of stink and pain, yet the locutions never get above Hatcher’s Midwestern J-school background. The inarticulateness plays now into the humor, now into the pathos. The few exceptions come in stream-of-consciousness passages, a recurring device that takes us, in italics, into various minds of the damned. One example, from one of Hatcher’s ex-wives, thinking of her wedding day: “much as I am happy that I rate the Mayor of New York as I marry the hot young anchor who beat Rather…, I understand with a terrible sudden grinding in my head that nobody has the slightest clue who I am, who I really am….”
If Hatcher gets that clue, if he can be re-hatchedinto a creature of empathy, rather than one who keeps behind a screen and treats others’ suffering as part of the job -- well, then we’ve got a hope in Hell, after all. The happy implication extends even to the novel’s author. Butler has a cameo, his “faintly aquiline nose” illuminated by a computer. Like all creative spirits, he risks dwelling alone forever among the phantasms of his own Underground. Yet his wild hair of a Hell manages both to sneak around Dante’s and deliver an uproarious refutation to Jean-Paul Sarte’s. This work argues the opposite of No Exit: Hell is the absence of other people.
Hell by Robert Olen Butler