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Book review: Robert Olen Butler's Hell


Butler, whose A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain is one of the great American short story collections, jumps full-tilt into absurdist, hilarious satire in this novel which takes place in Hell. Main character Hatcher McCord, the anchorman on Evening News From Hell, is dating Anne Boleyn and trying to figure out why he's in the lair of Satan (who, in this book, wears Armani, loves flannel, and can only be contacted by voice mail). Hitler is executed over and over; Dubya spends eternity looking for his Wings Made Divine (WMD); and Shakespeare's computer keeps crashing and losing his work. With the exception of Hitler, no one in this version of hell undergoes terrible punishments, but everyone is constantly, relentlessly inconvenienced. None of the cell phones work right, computer screensavers are limited to the "Windows Blue Screen of Death," while TV commercials are personalized and seemingly never-ending.

Butler mixes broad satire of everyday life, including incredibly crude but hilarious set-pieces (Anne Boleyn giving head, anyone?), with deeper musings about God's will and human adaptability. But, primarily, Butler has served up a 100 miles per hour, sometimes gimmicky, but never less than hysterical, funhouse mirror look at 21st century life. Like the Keillor book reviewed above, the main character learns valuable lessons, although they're less about Christmasy good will to all, and more along the lines of "cheer up, at least we're all stuck in this shit-pile together."

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