The prospect of hell has at least one comfort for unrepentant sinners: We’ll be with all our friends. If Robert Olen Butler’s latest novel, Hell, is any indication, we can also assume it’s a very funny place. Butler has written hell as a dizzying, vast expanse populated mostly by public figures suffering clever forms of torture: George W. Bush eternally searches for WMDs (“Wings Made Divine”), William Randolph Hearst is a ridiculed blogger who can’t turn off the caps lock, and J. Edgar Hoover gets to wear all the lipstick he wants. Atlantans should be pleased to learn that almost every street in hell is named Peachtree. Satan has a thing for flannel shirts, Armani jeans, and shooting hunters while they run naked in fields.
Butler employs Hatcher McCord, anchorman for the “Evening News from Hell,” as the book's guide. Hatcher is an old-fashioned everyman set adrift in a sea of fire. He doesn’t seem to have done much wrong to end up here and, even though he’s in hell, he’s trying to make the best of it. He and the decapitated Anne Boleyn are dating, despite that sex in hell always ends in frustration. His role as a journalist provides some relief, as “he is part of the suffering humanity all around him but really he is not, he is an observer, his pulse quickening at the pain he observes, his deep brain sparkling in delight at the possibility of a story.” Hatcher’s journalism is also Hell’s plot. Could there be “a back door out of Hell?” Does Satan have daddy issues? Why does Jerry Falwell think he’s here? Hatcher throws himself into his work and digs stories up from the brimstone.
The book’s a high-concept vehicle, as Butler’s work usually is, but it still traffics in plenty of low-brow jokes. In one particularly memorable scene, Anne tries to fellate Hatcher while he’s asleep next to her headless body. He wakes to find her decapitated head putting some serious moves on him and jumps out of the bed in surprise, causing Anne to bite down on his manhood in an effort to hold on. “Nothing I ever do in bed is right,” she says later, after she’s reattached to her body.
Thankfully, Hell isn’t just blowjob jokes and celebrity satire. If his body of work has proven anything, it's that Butler is a master of perspective. When he wants to slow down and show the reader something about the characters, the results can be staggering. TV commercials identify specific pains and longings rather than products, such as the clip directed at Hatcher with a recorded Fellini narrating simultaneously on 32 screens, “The beach was full of women I adore ... the sea was saturated red, and then the wave came and my flesh and my bones dissolved even as the flesh and the bones of these women dissolved and we howled together in pain, the women of my past and I, and that felt very familiar.”
As Hell progresses, though, Butler shows little interest in developing the characters and plot. The stream of public figures is ceaseless. Seinfeld is reduced to delivering one long, banal monologue, Bill and Hillary Clinton bicker about the past, and Hatcher keeps asking his questions along the way. Even though this hell-as-social-satire shtick is good, it ultimately gets in the way of the novel achieving a deeper relationship with the characters.
Hell ends on a predictable revelation about heaven, but Hatcher hits on a much better note about hell about halfway into the novel. Just as the reader is feeling at ease with the setting, Hatcher has a similar feeling about his place in eternity. Together, Hatcher and the reader feel “a settling, a fleeting moment’s feeling that in mortal life he would have called contentment. This is Hell as far as you can see. It is Hell for everyone. We are all utterly alone, but we are alone together.”
Hell by Robert Olen Butler. Grove Press. $24. 232 pp.