My blogger-friend Alley at What Red Read often recommends Christopher Moore, with good reason. Moore writes a unique brand of what I’ll call supernatural humor, somewhat similar to Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett or A. Lee Martinez. A Dirty Job, like the books of Jasper Fforde, is pretty hard to describe adequately, but I’ll do my best.
The book starts out on a tragic note. Charlie Asher’s wife Rachel dies shortly after giving birth to their first daughter, Sophie. She dies in the hospital, where Charlie finds a tall, think black man in a mint-green suit standing over her who no one else is able to see. Strange things start happening to Charlie. At first he attributes these incidents of death, mayhem, and radioactively-glowing objects to grief and sleeping pills, but he comes to discover he is now a Death Merchant, which is someone who collects souls from the dead. Charlie runs a second-hand store, which makes him a good collector of souls, because apparently when a person dies the soul leaps into a nearby item that has sentimental value. At some point a person walks into the store, is strangely drawn to the item and buys it, and thus the soul finds its new home.
Charlie has to learn this new trade, which comes with quite a few rules, such as not telling anyone, not talking to any other Death Merchants, and never losing a soul. He receives a book that explains the whole system, but it becomes clear that the book is misinformed on a few things. For one, his toddler daughter can kill people with a point of a finger and a single word. There are harpies attacking him in alleyways, two hellhounds have taken up residence guarding his daughter, and strange fourteen-inch creatures with squirrel bodies and alligator heads are invading his home. It appears the Apocalypse is coming.
This is one of those stories (think Shaun of the Dead) where the shy, unassuming, feeling-sorry-for-himself guy is called on to save the universe. But this book isn’t like anything you’ve read before. The story, the characters, the writing, and the humor are absolutely unique. You wouldn’t think a book about death would be so funny.
The book is set in San Francisco, and as is often the case, the city is practically a character in the story. Moore describes specific neighborhoods, homes, paint colors and other parts of San Francisco, even specific bookstores; clearly this book is a kind of homage to his city. Charlie covers most of the neighborhoods of San Francisco in his quest to find souls, from Chinatown to Haight-Ashbury to the Castro. The book is full of really rich descriptions of the city, which makes for fun reading if you’ve lived there. I had a hard time choosing one but here’s an example:
Charlie got out of the cab outside of the Fontana, an apartment building just up from Ghirardelli Square, the waterfront chocolate factory turned tourist mall. The Fontana was a great, curved, concrete-and-glass building that commanded views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, and that had drawn the disdain of San Franciscans since it had been built in the 1960s. It wasn’t that it was an ugly building, although no one would argue that it wasn’t, but with the Victorian and Edwardian structures all around it, it looked very much like a giant air conditioner from outer space attacking a nineteenth-century neighborhood.
(I should point out there is a great quote about Coit Tower in the book — but I decided it was a little too -umm- descriptive for this post.)
The book is laugh-out-loud funny and definitely on the politically-incorrect side. But my favorite thing about it was the supporting characters. Charlie’s employees in the shop are Ray, who spends most of his time trying to date desperate foreign women on the Internet, and Lily, the Goth-Girl sales clerk who desperately wishes she were chosen to become Death instead of Charlie. Minty Fresh is the man in the mint-green suit who runs a used-CD shop. Jane is Charlie’s suit-stealing sister, and Cassandra her partner. Rivera is a cop who starts out investigating Charlie but soon becomes a trusted ally. Audrey is a woman who creates 14-inch mini-monsters out of squirrels and other animal parts, dresses them in theatrical costume and brings them to life. And the Emperor of San Francisco is well, the Emperor of San Francisco. You knew that.
Last year I read another book by Moore that didn’t make as much of an impression on me, Bloodsucking Fiends. I think because the vampire thing has just been done so much, so even a parody of vampire fiction didn’t come off as that original. (Though I do recommend Gil’s All Fright Diner for that sort of thing). I also didn’t love the main characters, although the side characters turkey-bowling in the local grocery store were memorable.
This book felt very different. Charlie is definitely a guy you root for, and everything about this book felt original. It would be ironic if it took itself seriously; yes, Charlie has to become Death to truly start living. But at the same time, you never quite know who’s the villain, who’s the hero, and who’s just an innocent bystander. From start to finish this book is great fun.