‘Hell’ Humorously Depicts Hectic Afterlife

by Mindy Borie
Columnist

Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote, “Hell is other people.” To explain the full significance of this line with respect to Robert Olen Butler’s novel “Hell” would be to give too much away, but it is a sentiment which comes to the reader’s mind at several points during the course of the story.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Butler’s most recent creation is a very modern interpretation of the realm of the damned, as seen through the protagonist. Fictional anchorman Hatcher McCord is forced to host the evening news in hell despite the fact that his field reporters are burned alive almost every night and the teleprompter always gives out. This is a hell where the tortures are uniquely and horribly personalized — adulterers constantly await their lovers in cheap motels and Herman Melville, creator of “Moby-Dick,” is doomed to spend eternity attempting to write another novel but can’t get beyond the first sentence, “Call me e-mail.”

Melville and dozens of other famous historical people crop up between the covers of “Hell,” including but not limited to Anne Boleyn, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Dan Rather, Judas Iscariot, Humphrey Bogart and William Shakespeare, among others whom you will have to Google to identify. I’m not telling you whom I had to google to identify (just in case I missed someone totally shameful), but I’m just saying you probably won’t get all the references, which is something I actually like about this book. Butler isn’t afraid to let you miss him being clever, and he’s perfectly happy not to insult your intelligence by explaining every little thing.

“Hell” is an anomaly among literature in that it manages to be simultaneously hilarious and profound. In some moments it is not only sad but touching as it makes statements about fundamental truths of humanity without ever preaching and still constantly cracks jokes. The dead in the hell of “Hell” are doomed to an eternal life of never getting what they want — be it sex, sleep, fame or even just a good hamburger. Through their interactions with others, much is revealed about their lives on Earth and the singular tortures devised for them, including a particularly funny sequence in which Anne Boleyn’s head detaches at an inopportune moment.

“Hell,” available on Amazon or a bookstore near you, follows the quest of one man (McCord) as he explores his hell and tries to find a way out. Rumor has it that the poet Dante knows an escape from their place of eternal torment, and Hatcher wants to get himself and his friends (such as they are) out of it. Butler effortlessly navigates the streets and neighborhoods of hell just like Hatcher’s Satan-given driver Richard Nixon (compelled to repeat phrases such as “I am not a crook” as he drives). His characters and their story suggest that, in a place where every encounter is designed to harm and the word “love” cannot be spoken, the greatest torment of hell is trying to get out of hell.

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