HELL by Robert Olen Butler: A Review

Sep 14

I’m a slow reader, ask anyone. I’m not one to zip through a book. I take my time and slowly stroll through the world contained in the pages of a good read. I’m there to see the sights, to take in the smells, to meet the people there and get to know them. Because of this, a good book can take a month or more for me to finish. I’m in no rush. This is the literary version of a long-term relationship, not a one-night stand. I want to read things that impact me, that leave me thinking. A good story leaves you a different person than when you started. As a result of this, I’m fairly picky about what I read. If I don’t like it, I don’t torture myself through it-I set it down. Life is too short waste what little  good reading time we have to ourselves on something that isn’t worthy of the endeavor. The testament of a really good book is the ennui when I am finished. I don’t want it to end. We put it away to think about, tide our selves and wonder just when that magical set of incidenced will lead to the discovery of another great read.

A lot of this is done by word of mouth. About a month ago, I started HELL by Robert Olen Butler-and was so struck by the power of the voice that I immediately began posting it on my status headers on Facebook. Some people didn’t get it-“why are you so excited about this book?” Dude-don’t you get it? That’s the way good reading works-you get excited about it, you want others to read it so you can talk about it with them. You want to share. A truly excellent book enters into the social millieu and what better way to have it do so than tell your friends about it?

HELL is part satire and part social commentary; as if the case with all fiction, really, whether or not the writer or the audience is fully aware of this. The main protagonist, Hatcher McCord, was an anchorman during his life on Earth and is now forced by Satan to perform the same duties in Inferno. Perhaps the most popular-and most salient-piece of Hatcher’s reporting is the show “Why Are You Here?” Wherein Hatcher interviews various members of the rich, famous and powerful.  The rank and file includes Ann Boleyn, the Bush Presidents, Jerry Falwell, and the Brothers Gibb. As the story progresses, it becomes painfully apparent that most, if not everyone who ever lived on Earth is to be found among the ranks of the damned. We could ask ourselves, does this question pertain only to Hell? Why are any of us here? Why are we made to suffer so?

Hatcher learns, during his investigations and ambulations about Hell, that another Harrowing may be waiting in the wings. Upon hearing even a hope of this, he sets himself about the task of finding the when and where of it. He weaves his way through the machinations of Satan, his minions, and the petty personal intrigues of his fellow Damned. Along the way we are faced with a host of questions about the human condition, about the existentialist dilemma. The questions aren’t presented simply, and there are no clear cut lines, in fact between the answers (if there are any) and the impositions that begged for them.  Are we doomed to endlessly repeat ourselves, and reenacting our behavior-even though it’s what’s damned us to begin with-over and over  for eternity? That is, is there free-will or pre-destination? What is Hell, exactly, aside from a place of mere physical torment? 

This was the journey I took as I went cover to cover, a trip across a bizarre postmodern Inferno. The lessons and conclusions are muddled and not the linear moralizing of Dante’s Renaissance. They are muddled as one might expect for a modern audience, this is a Hell that we can know by not understanding. When the tale came to a close, I felt that familiar sense of satisfied ennui. Another good book ended. Something that got me to laugh and to think. So-read this book, its satire burns like dry-ice on the eyeballs. Its commentary will make you wrap your brain around it. Read it, so I can talk about it some more.


  1. Nice wrap up Peter, and thanks for not giving away any … secrets… I’m reading it right now and hated putting it down last night to catch some zzzzz’s. Funniest moment for me so far, the head- only Anne Boleyn scene with Hatcher in the bedroom. LOL.
    Bob certainly can paint a scene.
    Best part now, is having heard him read from the book live, I can hear his voice in my head as I turn the pages.

  2. Thanks Linda. I’m glad you liked my first ever book review. I tried to make it more personal and not as dry as most reviews are (I guess critics want to come off like they really are objective). I laughed my ass off at a number of scenes; but the head on head bit was both ironic and hilarious. Yeah, listening to him do the narrative really helps make it. One of my favorites, BTW, was when the Gibbs show up with Hoover and turn out to have been in league with the forces of darkness all along! 🙂 It still makes me crack up.

  3. lot about you

  4. Peter /

    Thanks, I appreciate the comment!

  5. Peter /

    Thanks Roberto, I appreciate that.

  6. Peter /

    Well, of course-it’s my blog! No, but seriously, I wanted my book review to be something a little different than the standard “it was good because of blah blah blah….” I wanted to review the book but also discuss the process involved in actually digging into a good read. I felt this made the post more consistent with the sensibilities of blogging, as opposed to say, a section in a magazine where books are reviewed…

  7. Peter /

    dilandinga, thanks for the kind words!

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