Written by: Carol Zolnowsky, Special to CC2K
I have somewhat of a perverse crush on Christopher Moore, which only makes sense, as he writes some perversely funny books. He’s been on my radar for a while now; I’ve seen his books on the shelves, but for some reason, I haven’t actually picked any of them up to read. However, last week, getting desperate for material to review, I picked the book with the skull-headed, scythe-wielding baby on the cover.
A Dirty Job is a comedy about death. This, I think, is a lot harder to do and a lot easier to do than one might think. It’s difficult, because a comedy about death will likely involve people dying, and it’s a tricky thing to kill off characters. Write them poorly because they’re expendable, and no one will care, and all the dramatic intent you had for that scene goes out the window. Write them well, make them loveable (i.e. Siruis Black) and behold! Riots in the streets! Conspiracy theories about how/why they aren’t really dead! Readers are so accustomed to the twist, the exception, and the magic that is literature that they keep expecting the dead to walk again. A book is not real life, and that’s why we love it.
It’s easy, however, because all comedy is inherently based in tragedy. Every joke has a butt, and finding things to laugh at in the midst of pain and misfortune is hardwired into humanity. It’s probably a survival skill of some sort: if you can’t laugh at tragedy, you lie down and die of grief. With that in mind, death becomes perfect fodder for a wonderfully funny book. Where Christopher Moore has particular skill here is to see the comedy not in the deaths of the characters, but in the circumstance surrounding them. The pain is real and raw, but the reactions; the coping; the ongoing, unstoppable march of life is where he plants his humor. Perhaps I should call it a comedy in between death.
Our hero in A Dirty Job is Charlie Asher, and he is described primarily as a “Beta Male”: one of those overwhelmingly common types of guys who may not lead the world, but certainly keeps it running. In Chapter One, he is freaking out in a hospital, as his wife has just given birth, and he’s terribly, terribly afraid that something has gone wrong and that either Rachel (his wife) or Sophie (his new daughter) could drop dead at any second. Rachel and the hospital staff assure him that he has nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, Charlie is right. Rachel is dead by the end of Chapter One, victim of a cerebral thromboembolism.* And if that’s not enough, Charlie himself becomes Death in the beginning of Chapter Two. This doesn’t seem like the sort of set-up that should be followed by the words “hilarity ensues,” but I assure you, hilarity does, indeed, ensue. Here are my top seven reasons (I didn’t want to invent the extra three to get a nice round number) why I really liked A Dirty Job:
1) It’s got a wickedly dark sense of humor. It’s a comedy about Death, for crying out loud.
2) It’s got a random sense of humor. I offer you only these lines: “The squirrel in the hoop skirt was really bothering the Emperor, but he couldn’t exactly say why. He liked squirrels—often took the men to Golden Gate Park to chase them, in fact—but a squirrel walking upright and digging through the trash behind the Empanada Emporium while wearing a pink ball gown from the eighteenth century—well—it was off-putting.”**
3) It has some very sensitive moments. People die in this book. In between the hilarity, there is a lot of grief and mourning. In fact, this book was inspired by the death of Christopher Moore’s own mother, so he is able to write a very convincing portrayal of honest and overwhelming grief. There is also a very touching appreciation of hospice workers. This sort of emotional honesty and sensitivity help make the characters real, which helps keep the novel grounded in reality, despite the clearly absurd events (see point #3).
4) The element of surprise is handled perfectly. This story is written with exquisite timing. There are books (cough Eragon cough) where so little information is revealed that the weight of the secrets gets tedious after a while. This one offers just enough to let you know it’s worth it, but holds back enough to keep you interested.***
5) It’s got a dirty sense of humor. No, serious, straight up raunchy. Don’t let your kid sister read this one. The language is foul, the sex is pretty explicit, and the violence is graphic. The sort of stuff you feel really bad for laughing about.
6) Moore is not afraid to kill off his characters. Granted, he’s not up to Hamlet’s standard, but the body count is impressive. I like that in an author.
7) Christopher Moore also wrote Lamb. Okay, so this is more of a reason why I love Christopher Moore, but hey, it’s the only reason I picked up A Dirty Job in the first place. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal is one of the funniest, saddest, most spiritually-edifying, and wrongest books I have ever read. Ever. Artwork, people. Someday I’ll write a review—nay, compose an ode!—about Lamb.
To be fair, it’s not a perfect book. Nothing is, of course. The randomness gets irritating at times, like it can be in The Family Guy; as you’re sitting there enjoying the story, suddenly a foot tall crocodile assassin is going after Sophie with no explanation whatsoever and you’re just sitting there thinking, “Where the fuck did that come from?” It runs a little long, and I found myself getting distracted waiting for the showdown between the forces of good and evil. The post-showdown wrap-up is a little too tidy for my tastes, but at least it leaves you feeling good for everybody. And most annoyingly, you don’t get a real good sense of how all this becoming Death stuff works. Well, that might not bother you, but I’m a sucker for a good origin story.
Long story short: it’s good stuff. Check it out. And if not this one, then at least something by this guy.
*It’s a bad thing. Google if you absolutely must know more.
**He’s not hallucinating either, which is the fun part. And there’s thousands of lines like that.
***No, I didn’t mean it like that! You’ve got a dirty mind.