Hell by Robert Olen Butler

Hell book cover
Rating 7.0/10
Hell is a book that will divide opinions.

Hatcher McCord is an evening newscaster who has found himself in Hell and is struggling to explain his bad fortune. He's far from the only one to suffer this fate - in fact, he's surrounded by an outrageous cast of characters, including William Shakespeare, Humphrey Bogart, Richard M. Nixon, Jezebel, Judas Iscariot, Pope Boniface VIII, J. Edgar Hoover, and a panoply of present-day figures who will soon be in Hell. The question may be not who is in Hell but who isn't.

McCord is living in the afterlife with Anne Boleyn; but their happiness is, of course, constantly derailed by her obsession with Henry VIII (and the removal of her head at rather inopportune moments). Butler's Hell isn't as much a boiling lake of fire - although, there is that - as it is a Sisyphean trail tailored to each inhabitant, whether it's the average Joes who are struck by moving cars, die, and are reconstituted many times a day to do it all again, or the legendary newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, doomed to obscurity as a blogger mocked by his fellows because he can't figure out CAPS LOCK.
 
One day, Hatcher McCord meets Dante's Beatrice, who believes there is a way out of Hell. Soon thereafter, by a twist of diabolical fate and his interviewer's savvy, he learns a deep, dark secret of the underworld. From there Butler is off on a madcap romp about good, evil, free will, and the possibility of escape.

In his first full-length novel since Fair Warning in 2002, Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler has turned his unique talents to the afterlife in the surreal, satirical and darkly comic Hell. Butler’s Hell is full to the brim with those you would expect to see there – Hitler, Stalin and Celine Dion – and also those you may not necessarily expect – Humphrey Bogart, Jerry Seinfeld and Anne Boleyn.

At the centre of it all is Hatcher McCord, a now-dead network anchorman who works for the one and only television channel in Hell, interviewing famous luminaries asking the sole question “Why do you think you are here?”

Hell is rather a mixed bag, cutting and humorous at times, bewildering and rather base at others. The desolate and bleak vision of the underworld provides fuel for strong mental images and there are undoubtedly some excellent moments to be found within. One such stand-out moment is the film noir episode where McCord meets with Humphrey Bogart. This following extract is taken from there: 

“Hatcher pops a cigarette, puts it in his mouth, stuffs the pack - his brand is Lucky Strikes - back into his coat, and he finds matches in a side pocket. He strikes one. He lifts the flame to the tip of his cigarette, and he realizes the conversation has stopped. Both Bogey and the dame are watching him. Hatcher takes the cigarette out of his mouth and turns it around, elegantly, and offers it to the dame. She opens her mouth slightly. Gently he puts the sucking end between her lips. She closes them on the cigarette, and they brush the tip of his finger. He draws his hand away slowly.”
Hell, Robert Olen Butler

There is a lot going on in Hell, sometimes too much to keep up with. There is also an overly American feel to it; readers who have grown up with American politics and knowledge of the news networks should be in there element but many others may struggle and the constant trips to the PC to research names can only result in the narrative never really flowing.

Butler’s Hell is more about inconvenience than suffering, a bit more Groundhog Day than eternal damnation. Dismemberment and reconstitutions are the order of the day for its inhabitants with Dante’s Inferno and obvious influence on this work (Dante himself also makes a cameo appearance).

Robert Olen Butler can be sublime at times and obviously enjoyed letting his creative mind run riot when penning Hell but unfortunately it makes for a rather difficult read. The characters or the story never fully materialise and as such a firm connection is never made between author and reader. Some will find Hell amusing, some will find it senseless, and some will find it absorbing, others simply perplexing. Hell is a book that will divide opinions.
 
Robert Olen Butler has published eleven novels and five volumes of short fiction, one of which, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  His Pulitzer book is comprised of stories in the voices of Vietnamese exiles in the United States and draws on the rich mythic storytelling traditions of the Vietnamese culture.  That was the beginning of his movement as a writer toward fantasy elements. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize and National Magazine Awards in 2001 and 2005, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and an NEA grant, as well as the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.

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