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There’s a line of Baudelaire’s that aptly describes
Robert Olen Butler’s depiction of Hell: “An oasis of
horror in a desert of boredom.” This isn’t to say HELL
is a tedious read --- far from it --- but think less fire and
brimstone and more the sorrowful regret of Hades, the traumatic
everyday reductio ad absurdum.

This is a thoroughly modern Hell --- one that advances with the
ages of humanity, a kind of torture for older
“denizens” who find themselves increasingly lost in an
advancing world. There is TV. There is email. There are traffic
jams, which are eternally long. And the sex is always unsatisfying,
no matter how hard you try otherwise. This being Hell, every moment
of your day is an opportunity for Satan to have his way with you,
but his tortures are subtle and mundane. To break up the normal
humdrum of Hell, there’s the occasional violent physical
trauma: Cerberus is rabid and on the loose again, or flaming hail
comes down in large enough chunks to burn and shatter your body
until it reconstitutes. But whether this is a worse form of torture
than hitting your knee on the coffee table every time you walk past
it is one of Butler’s bemusing unanswered questions.

HELL spares no expense on the living and recently deceased. In
the Dantean tradition of gleefully devising tortures for
individuals the author doesn’t like very much, there’s
no shortage of historical and recent celebrities, politicians and
public figures suffering in unique ways: William Randolph Hearst is
reduced to a blogger who can’t figure out CAPS LOCK; George
W. Bush is the Wile E. Coyote to Bin Laden’s Road Runner;
Bill Clinton waits in a seedy motel for a girl --- any girl --- who
never comes. There’s also some odes to Dante’s version
of Hell: there remains wandering nomads stalking each other while
leering. But while in the rather un-PC INFERNO this is the
punishment for homosexuality, Butler’s Hell assigns this fate
to celebrity bloggers, doomed to launch petty barbs at each other
for eternity. Unrestrained by a rather limiting nine circles,
Butler’s Hell is tailor-made to each damned soul, and it
becomes increasingly obvious that no souls have escaped
Hell’s grasp. Religious leaders of all the major faiths
repent in vain.

HELL is more atmosphere than anything else. It’s detailed
but elusive, denying easy categorization or comprehension. Hell has
a way of continually escaping our understanding: denizens find
their way drawn into tortures they never expected, Satan seems more
or less schizophrenic, and the Great Metropolis is an endless grid
of streets named Peachtree and Lucky. But it’s also one of
the most charming views of eternal suffering you’re ever
likely to read.

The plot concerns a network newscaster, Hatcher McCord, now
anchorman for the “Evening News from Hell” (whenever
evening decides to show up), who’s dating an often-headless
Anne Boleyn still attached to her beloved Henry VIII. But Hatcher
is more interesting as a vehicle for us to learn about Hell and its
carnivalesque practices. McCord is a combined Virgil and Dante: as
confused as the rest of us, but still an experienced denizen
capable of giving us a complete tour. As a foil-type character, he
(rather cynically) shows us how Hell isn’t that much
different from life: everyone is there, too trapped within their
self-torturing minds to recognize the suffering of those around
them. Much like Earth, Hell offers oases of horror --- often the
horror of self-realization in a desert of the mundane. It’s a
barbed truth that takes some time to sink in, but once you begin to
suspend your disbelief about Butler’s Hell, it feels almost

Unfortunately this plot is often clumsy and aimless, dropping
storylines to pick them up only much later (if at all) and
possessing so little continuity as to be too confusing,
even for a surreal portrait of the underworld. The satire at times
feels overdone. McCord is a charming character, but wouldn’t
be interesting enough in his own right were he not a foil for the
rest of us. But his suffering and attempts at redemption (a rare
attempt for the long-suffering, defeated denizens of Hell) are
genuine, and HELL rewards its readers with a heartfelt, but not
maudlin, conclusion offering a restrained, human form of redemption
as the answer to false messiahs and blind faith. There’s hope
for us, somewhere.

Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 22, 2011

by Robert Olen Butler

  • Publication Date: October 12, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802145094
  • ISBN-13: 9780802145093