Book Review 71: A Dirty Job

"Sometimes," he said to Lazarus, the steadfast golden retriever, "a man must muster all of his courage to simply sit still. How much humanity has been spoiled for the confusion of movement with progress, my friend? How much?"

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In “A Dirty Job” by Christopher Moore, Beta-Male Charlie  becomes a grim reaper, charged by mystical forces with collecting people souls when then die in parts of San Francisco. Several characters from other Moore books, including Jody and the Emperor from Blood Sucking Fiends and Minty Fresh from Coyote Blue put in in an appearance. This ties the book into the broader Moore-iverse of favorite characters.

This book has the weird zaniness all Moore books have, but it gets deeper. It’s a comical and sophisticated book.  One of the problems I had in writing this book is that there are fewer quotable phrases and line than there were in “Blood Sucking Fiends.” Many of the jokes just don’t have as much punch outside their paragraphs. That feels like a more mature style than we’ve seen in the past from Moore. The novel is less joke-y, but it’s no less funny. And that’s one of the things I like about it.

An example of this is Moore’s page-and-a-half description of the definition of can challenges faced by the beta-male.  Here is just a small part of it:

Charlie's problem was that the trailing edge of his Beta Male imagination was digging at him like bamboo splinters under the fingernails. While Alpha Males are often gifted with superior physical attributes—size, strength, speed, good looks—selected by evolution over the eons by the strongest surviving and, essentially, getting all the girls, the Beta Male gene has survived not by meeting and overcoming adversity, but by anticipating and avoiding it. That is, when the Alpha Males were out charging after mastodons, the Beta  Males could imagine in advance that attacking what was essentially an angry, woolly bulldozer with a pointy stick might be a losing  proposition, so they hung back at camp to console the grieving widows. When Alpha Males set out to conquer neighboring tribes, to count coups and take heads, Beta Males could see in advance that in the event of a victory, the influx of female slaves was going to leave a surplus of mateless women cast out for younger trophy models, with nothing to do but salt down the heads and file the uncounted coups, and some would find solace in the arms of any Beta Male smart enough to survive. In the case of defeat, well, there was that widows thing again. The Beta Male is seldom the strongest or the fastest, but because he can anticipate danger, he far outnumbers his Alpha Male competition. The world is led by Alpha Males, but the machinery of the world turns on the bearings of the Beta Male.


The problem (Charlie's problem) is that the Beta Male imagination has become superfluous in the face of modern society. Like the saber-toothed tiger's fangs, or the Alpha Male's testosterone, there's just more Beta Male imagination than can really be put to good use. Consequently, a lot of Beta Males become hypochondriacs, neurotics, paranoids, or develop an addiction to porn or video games.


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It goes on from there.

The book isn’t entirely devoid of jokes. Moore uses this structure in several places:

Audrey was showing them around the Buddhist center, which, except for the office in the front, and a living room that had been turned into a meditation room, looked very much like any other sprawling Victorian home. Austere and Oriental in its decor, yes, and perhaps the smell of incense permeating it, but still, just a big old house.

"It's just a big old house, really," she said, leading them into the kitchen.


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And he does play with names, such as the fireworks merchant who lost two fingers that Charlie patronizes.

"The White Devil has finally gone around the bend," said Three Fingered Hu's eleventh grandchild, Cindy Lou Hu, who stood at the counter next to her venerated and digitally challenged ancestor.

'His money not crazy," said Three.


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The story starts with Charlie’s wife dying in the hospital after giving birth to their daughter. While Charlie is in her room in her final moments, a grim reaper comes into the hospital room to collect and object and is shocked when Charlie can seem him. No one else can see the reaper and neither can the security cameras.

Charlie goes home to deal with his grief, raise his new daughter as a single parent, and deal the quirky employees that work at his second hand shop. They start to question Charlie’s sanity as he claims certain objects in the store may be radioactive because they glow red in a way that only he can see.

Meanwhile, he can’t seem to keep any of his daughter’s pets alive.

Before long, strange notes appear at his bedside, in his own handwriting, and he is hearing voices come up from the sewer grates around the city.

In many ways, Charlie feels like a more grown up and more fully drawn version of Moore’s earlier San Francisco beta-male -- Tommy, from “Blood Sucking fiends.”  I mentioned “A Dirty Job” several times in my review of that book, because I find the comparison between the two fascinating. This book is not a sequel to the other, but they do exist in the same universe. Several of the characters cross over between the two, but you do not need to read one to appreciate the other. Putting them both side-by-side, though is a great way to look at the author’s growth.

I don’t want to go into any further detail, lest I spoil a surprise.  I do recommend this book, especially if you enjoy humorous novels about the supernatural. It’s a got a nice story, some great storytelling, and several really interesting characters. It’s definitely worth the reading time.

More of my book reviews are available here


Radiolab and Bolero

I stood in the middle off the G-Terminal at ORD the other day listening to podcasts.

Contrasting with the bustle of busy, annoyed, stressed, and sweaty travelers, RadioLab podcasts explore deep concepts and have some of the most creative uses of sound I hear in my day-to-day life.

Unraveling Bolero is a great example. While it is typical in most respect, certain elements came together and it struck me as one of the most beautiful and terrifying episodes I've heard.


Book Review 70: Blood Sucking Fiends

‘I’ve seen him,” the Emperor whispered. “It’s a vampire.”

Tommy recoiled as if he’d been spit on. “A vampire florist?”

‘Well, once you accept the vampire part, the florist part is a pretty easy leap, don’t you think?’

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Blood Sucking Fiends is an early Christopher Moore novel. Jody, a redhead in San Francisco becomes a vampire and relies on newly arrived, aspiring writer Tommy to take care of her needs during the day.

This is the second time I’ve read it. The first time was years ago, before I startedwriting my own reviews. It was also the first Christopher Moore novel I read. The reason I read it the first time was that it seemed like an interesting take on the vampire mythology and that it would also be funny. It was. The second time I read it was because I had just finished reading Moore’s more recent “A Dirty Job” where a couple of the characters make an appearance (review coming shortly). Reading it the second time, after reading other more novels, made the experience richer.

It’s an entertaining book, but it is not nearly as good as his later novels. Over the course of his career Moore improved as a story teller and humorist. That’s not to say Blood Sucking Fiends isn’t good -- it is. It’s just not as mature as his later books. Which makes sense. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect someone to be better at their job after 15 years of doing it.

The strength of the book is in its flashes of awesome paragraphs. Moore sketches out memorable characters and gives them some common voices. Among the common themes is that women are much stronger than men.
She thought, There must be a hundred thousand dollars here. A man attacked me, choked me, bit my neck, burned my hand. then stuffed my shirt full of money and put a dumpster on me and now I can see heat and hear fog. I’ve won Satan’s lottery.

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‘Is there something wrong with your food?”

“No, I’m just not very hungry.’

“You’re going to break my heart, aren’t you?”

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“Me too,” he said. He hung up and thought: She’s evil. Evil, evil, evil. I want to see her naked.

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Why in the hell was she being so mysterious? He opened the envelope and took out a stack of hundred-dollar bills, counted them, then put them back in the envelope. Four thousand dol-lars. He had never seen that much money in one place. Where did she get that kind of money? Certainly not filling out claims at an insurance company. Maybe she was a drug dealer. A smuggler Maybe she embezzled it. Maybe it was all a trap. Maybe when he got to the impound lot to pick up her car, the police would arrest him. She had a lot of nerve signing her note “Love.” What would the next one say? “Sorry you have to do hard time in the big house for me. Love, Jody.” But she did sign it that way: “Love. What did that mean? Did she mean it, or was it habit? She probably signed all of her letters with “Love.’

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The vampire let go of Jody’s arm, reached across to put his hand on Hair Plugs’s shoulder, and held him fast to his seat. The drunk’s eyes went wide. The vampire smiled. “She’ll rip out your throat and drink your blood as you die. Is that what you want?”

Hair Plugs shook his head violently. “No, I already have an ex- wife.”

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Moore’s male main characters often appear at one of two poles -- the overconfident, macho character or the insecure, obsessive, and not-too-bright character represented by Tommy in several of these passages. Moore’s jokes, entertaining phrasing, and absurd situations keep me interested in reading.

It’s not just the supernatural and aspiring writers that Moore takes on. What book about San Francisco would be complete without the obligatory digs at Oakland? He’s able to comment on Oakland while giving us a vivid sensation of the enhanced senses a new vampire experiences.

She spotted a pay phone; a red chimney of heat rose from the lamp above it. She looked up and down the empty street. Above each streetlight she could see heat rising in red waves. She could hear the buzzing of the electric bus wires above her, the steady stream of the sewers running under the street. She could smell dead fish and diesel fuel in the fog, the decay of the Oakland mudflats across the bay, old French fries, cigarette butts, bread crusts and fetid pastrami from a nearby trash can, and the residual odor of Aramis wafting under the doors of the brokerage houses and banks. She could hear wisps of fog brushing against the buildings like wet velvet.. It was as if her senses, like her strength, had been turned up by adrenaline.

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Ah, but I must be strong for the troops. It could be worse, I suppose. I could be the Emperor of Oakland.

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The Emperor of San Francisco is a favorite recurring character in Moore novels. He’s an apparently homeless man with two dogs who sees himself at the emperor of the city. He’s well-known to many of the random citizens who appear to humor and defer to him. He offers many the wisdom of a benevolent king and the street-level intelligence of someone who hears and sees things on the street that most other people never notice. The Emperor, for example, worries about business people going about their days, and how for many, there is no future:
“They have to look right or their peers will turn on them like starving dogs. They are the fallen gods. The new gods are producers, creators, doers. The new gods are the chinless techno-children who would rather eat white sugar and watch science-fiction films than worry about what shoes they wear. And these poor souls desperately push papers around hoping that a mystical message will appear to save them from the new awkward, brilliant gods and their silicon-chip reality. Some of them will survive, of course, but most will fall. Uncreative thinking is done better by machines. Poor souls, you can almost hear them sweating.”

Tommy looked at the well-dressed stream of businesspeople. Then at the Emperor’s tattered overcoat, then at his own sneakers, then at the Emperor again. For some reason, he felt better than he had a few minutes before. “You really worry about these people, don’t you?’

‘It is my lot.”

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Make no mistake; this is a good book. It’s weakness is more evident, however, in comparison to later Moore novels. Unlike later books, this one feels like a series of interesting characters and scenes attached to an internal structure or outline. There’s a certain shallowness about it. It’s less of a funny book and more of a book with great jokes. In addition to other books in the same universe Moore also wrote a couple sequels to this book, and they’re sitting on my shelf right now. I can’t wait to read them.

More of my book reviews are available here