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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Robert Olen Butler goes to Hell and back

arts_HellWEB

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.

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