The Undertaker's Understudy

Reviewed by Paul Di Filippo
Sunday, April 2, 2006


A Novel

By Christopher Moore

Morrow. 387 pp. $24.95

The tradition of Death taking on a fumbling apprentice might seem fully plumbed by now in the literature of the fantastic, on a par with all those "deal with the devil" tales. But if any contemporary humorist could be relied on to spin engaging variations on this riff, it would be Christopher Moore. Since his debut in 1992 with Practical Demonkeeping , Moore has produced eight books that deftly blend surreal, occult and even science-fiction doings with laugh-out-loud satire of contemporary culture. Powered by engines of the abnormal and unlikely, his tales feature eccentric lowlifes who find their desperate existences hilariously remade by intrusions from other spheres.

A Dirty Job is an outstanding addition to his canon. Protagonist Charlie Asher is a naturally cautious and timid soul, content with life as the proprietor of a junk shop. What sustains him is his marvelous wife, Rachel, who he can hardly believe ever consented to be his mate. And now that Rachel has delivered their first child, Sophie, Charlie's life seems complete. Of course, the birth of a daughter gives him lots of new apprehensions about mortality and the future, but in a superb example of Moore's narrative cunning, Charlie's dreads are misdirected. As the book begins, he loses not Sophie but Rachel to a "cerebral thromboembolism." Bad enough. But to complicate matters, a tall man dressed garishly in green, whom only Charlie can see, is at Rachel's side when she dies. And the fellow steals Rachel's favorite CD -- now oddly aglow with her disembodied soul -- in the confusion.

This man, Charlie learns, is a mortal named Minty Fresh, a used-music dealer who moonlights as a "Death Merchant," one of a dozen deputies for Death. Their job is to collect "soul vessels," tangible objects that house the essences of the recently departed. These soul vessels are then passed on to living individuals who lack souls of their own, in a kind of modified version of reincarnation.

And now Charlie has been tapped for the same job.

The remainder of the novel covers five years of Charlie's life, during which time he has to raise Sophie as a single dad, perform his duties as a Death Merchant and thwart a trio of sewer-dwelling harpies out to undermine all human existence. In the course of these actions, he is aided by a motley cast: his two helpers at the junk store (a teenage Goth girl and a bachelor ex-cop fixated on mail-order brides); his obnoxious lesbian sister; two hellhounds; and a mystical young leader of the "squirrel people," living puppets formed of random organic debris.

Much of the pleasure of Moore's tale resides not only in the ingeniously unpredictable events but also in the prickly vitality of his language. Striking figures of speech (the Death Merchants are "secret agents of karma") and aphorisms grace the text: "Everyone is happier, if they have someone to look down on, as well as someone to look up to, especially if they resent both." And the dialogue follows a zany illogic worthy of the Marx Brothers, as in this colloquy between Charlie and Minty Fresh:

"Mr. Fresh looked up. 'The book says if we don't do our jobs everything could go dark, become like the Underworld. I don't know what the Underworld is like, Mr. Asher, but I've caught some of the road show from there a couple of times, and I'm not interested in finding out. How 'bout you?'

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