"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?"
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.
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.
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.
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