Book World: Review of 'Hell' by Robert Olen Butler

By Andrew Davidson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 9, 2009


By Robert Olen Butler

Grove. 232 pp. $24

Been wondering who's in hell? Robert Olen Butler has the answer: just about everyone, including people who (in our world) aren't dead yet. Interestingly, the kind of life a person has lived, good or evil, doesn't seem to matter. Dante's back, writing a novel as his eternal punishment, and Shakespeare's there, too, weeping for quill and ink because "his hard drive keeps crashing and he loses his plays." George W. Bush is confused and thinks he's in Heaven, and Dick Cheney is kvetching with Beelzebub (Satan's right-hand demon) about the stupidity of their respective bosses. Jerry Seinfeld's comedy routine is bombing, and Christopher Hitchens is making out with Mother Teresa, which is probably equal torture for both.

At the center of this witty, wide-ranging satire is Hatcher McCord, anchor of the Evening News From Hell, whose interviews usually consist of a single question: "Why Do You Think You're Here?" (My favorite response is from J. Edgar Hoover: "I was needed. Can you imagine how many Communists there are down here?") While playing along as the devil's newscaster, Hatcher is secretly plotting to escape from the underworld, and he redoubles his efforts after Beatrice -- you know, "Dante's girl" -- claims that there is, in fact, a backdoor out.

Butler doesn't shy away from tipping his hat in Dante's direction -- with this subject, it's impossible not to -- but whereas "The Inferno" shows a realm in which punishments are unimaginably painful, "Hell" features a never-ending series of inconveniences. Cellphones exist but never get a strong signal, the universal screensaver is the Windows Blue Screen of Death and Butler writes that "keeping up with advances in technology is one of the great tortures of Hell for the old-timers." In fact, when Hatcher encounters Virgil and asks him which hell Dante traveled through, Virgil replies: "This one. But low-tech."

Call me a traditionalist, but I miss the good old days. Boiling blood, deserts of burning sand and sinners frying forever -- now that's damnation! And yet, for all Dante's medieval fire and brimstone, what's often forgotten is that at the heart of his "Inferno," in the center of the last and lowest circle, Satan is encased in a block of ice.

Butler's "Hell" also has a cold heart, but in an entirely different way. There's no denying that this is a funny book, with some terrific images, but the writing is used to show off the author's clever ideas rather than to generate complex characters or a compelling story. Hatcher's objective is to escape, but when hell doesn't seem much worse than a bad day at the office, what's the rush?

Davidson is the author of "The Gargoyle," recently released in paperback.

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