Hell by Robert Olen Butler (book review)

What do you see when you consider Hell? Flames and torture, pushing boulders up unending mountains or perhaps embarrassing yourself on television on a daily basis and suffering four-hour erections? Although it sounds like making of a reality TV series, it’s actually the type of Hell depicted in Robert Olen Butler’s eponymous novel.

Newscaster Hatcher McCord is in Hell and he’s not really sure why. Surrounded by a historical figures such as Anne Boleyn, William Shakespeare and Richard Nixon, death and condemnation is no excuse for not working and he’s forced to present the ‘Evening News From Hell’ where the autocue never works properly and the advertisements sell off your beloved personal effects.

McCord is making the best of a hellish situation, creating something resembling an after-life for himself. This is all thrown into disarray when he learns that there may be a way out and he meets with as many powerbrokers down below as possible in an effort to find this rumoured escape route.

Butler’s depiction of Hell is more subtle than the usual pitchfork up the backside that readers may be used to. Everything is designed to grind the victim down for all eternity but in a more modern way. This is best illustrated when McCord and girl-friend Anne Boleyn attempt to have sex and it keeps getting sabotaged by their own insecurities and memories. This could happen to any couple at any time, in any plane of existence but it’s the inevitability of it that is so disheartening for our hero.

Some of the jokes are a bit easy and perhaps written for the author’s own amusement than anyone else’s– President Bush being stupid, J. Edgar Hoover cross-dressing – but that doesn’t make them any less amusing and Butler certainly isn’t the first author to do this. Trimming back the amusing references probably would have helped the flow of the novel as they quite often disrupt the momentum of what is quite an original tale.

I found the book tough to get going and I have a feeling it may be an acquired taste once you get past the novelty of celeb spotting. ‘Hell’ can perhaps be summed up as a nice place to visit but I certainly wouldn’t want to live there.

Aidan Fortune

October 2012

 

(pub: Grove Press. 232 page small hardback. Price: $24.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-8021-1901-8)

check out websites: www.groveatlantic.com and www.robertolenbutler.com

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