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Robert Olen Butler wants you to go to Hell!

November 4, 2009

butler_hellAmong America’s most adventurous fiction writers, Robert Olen Butler has tackled novels, short stories, supermarket tabloids, alien abduction, postcards, and prose poems about what happens when you get your head cut off or while you’re having sex. Now, he takes us to Hell.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, his 1993 collection of linked stories about Vietnam refugees in Louisiana, Butler brings Hell to Miami Book Fair International on Sat., Nov. 14, at noon. He’ll appear with fellow literary adventurers Alan Cheuse (A Trance After Breakfast) and Michael Greenberg (Beg, Borrow, Steal).

Hell, the story of a damned TV newscaster trying to find his way out of eternal perdition in the title locale, is a wildly dark comedy, with cameos by everyone from Anne Boleyn to Adolph Hitler, Judas Iscariot to Billy Graham, Humphrey Bogart to Richard Nixon, Herman Melville to William Randolph Hearst.

Butler doesn’t leave himself out of the fun. Rushing to and fro in his quest to avoid torment and make amends to people he harmed in life, hero Hatcher McCord passes an open doorway, where he spies a hunched figure at a desk, “his faintly acquiline nose” lit by the glow of a computer screen.

ButlerR_InHell_0_0I can’t recall ever witnessing such a mixed critical reaction to a novel, often in the same review. Janet Maslin of The New York Times penned one of the few outright pans (“Mr. Butler,” she sniffs, “piles on more and more. He shows no sign of knowing when to stop.”) By contrast, I wrote one of the few unadulterated raves for the Palm Beach ArtsPaper (“Trite though it may be to say, Butler’s subject here is not suffering among the dead in Hell, but among the living on earth. Seldom has literary fantasy turned the trick so well”).

If Maslin misses the point, badly, as I think she does, most reviewers have fallen somewhere in the middle. Andrew Davidson, writing in The Washington Post, first giveth (a “witty, wide-ranging satire”) then taketh away (“Butler’s Hell has a cold heart”). How anyone can read this book and form that conclusion is a mystery to me–the humanism of the hero’s final choice is uplifting and unsettling–but the guy’s entitled to his opinion.

For the past 15 years, Robert Olen Butler has established himself as a high-brow writer with an appreciation for low-brow humor, a literary artiste willing to seine the tawdry genres for the treasures gleaming in their muck. In books like Mr Spaceman, Tabloid Dreams, Had a Good Time, Severance and Intercourse, low culture and high marry happily, ennobling the one and re-energizing the other.

With Hell, Butler has reached a nearly perfect synthesis of these impulses, and in my mind created a comic modernist masterpiece to set alongside the best works of Robert Coover, John Barth, or Kurt Vonnegut.

By the way, Butler is also a superb reader of his own prose, so you won’t want to miss his appearance at Miami Book Fair International, where, for an hour, he will serve as our very own contemporary Virgil by treating us to a brief tour of –well, you know.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 4, 2009 1:50 pm

    What the Hell, Chauncey Mabe, you’ve convinced me. I’ll read it.

  2. rachel permalink
    November 4, 2009 2:26 pm

    I will give this a try too, in fact maybe I’ll start tonight. I’ve enjoyed other works of Butler’s, such as Severance and Intercourse, and Had a Good Time, and Alleys of Eden.

    Although, I will disagree with you calling the text in Severance and Intercourse “prose poems.” I prefer to think of them as short stories. Short shorts. If theater can do it, so can we.

  3. Eileen permalink
    November 4, 2009 3:45 pm

    I saw him read at the Miami Book Fair in the late 90s, after the publication of Tabloid Dreams. His was one of the 2 or 3 books I bought that day, so good was his reading. I’m just sad I wasn’t in the FSU writing program long enough to work with him there.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 4, 2009 4:06 pm

    I can’t imagine anyone picking up this book will regret it, Maslin notwithstanding.

    Rachel, you say to-may-to, I say t-mah-to.

  5. rachel permalink
    November 4, 2009 4:43 pm

    Yeah yeah yeah.

    Let’s talk about this picture. And how eerie it is: a floating head.

    Well done photographer.

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 5, 2009 12:04 am

    That is a striking picture, isn’t it, Rachel?

    Eileen, I was at that reading. In fact, that was the night I first met Butler. He read the story about the guy who died and came back as a parrot that was then bought by his widow. Hilarious. That’s what put me onto his work, too.

    And Having a Good Time has one of the very best short stories I’ve read in the past twenty years, by the title of Up By Heart. I love that story.

  7. November 9, 2009 1:33 pm

    There can be no hell. Does not God forgive all. How can you be sent to hell then? Sound like hell is a creation of a parents that wants to convince children not to do some thing. Do parents ever say ” If you keep hitting your sister you will go to Heaven”? I do want to read the book. One guy told me hell is on earth. We do not have a hell on PurpleUmpkin. We have a place that is like an old hamburger joint from the 60’s. When you go you have t sit there for 300 years or until your Vanilla Frappe is finished. Wait to you see who is making it. That is the surprise. I like his style.

  8. November 10, 2009 1:00 am

    I’ll read it. What strikes me is that all the books about hell are about earth. I’m thinking too of David Kirby’s “The Temple Gate Called Beautiful,” and of course, his inspiration there, Dante’s Inferno.

    I like the devilish photo too. Hope to see him in the tortured flesh at the Miami Book Fair . . . helluva book fest!

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