Review: A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore

dirty job

(Orbit, 978-184-149603-0)

(Review first published on the Antipodean Specfic in Focus website, January 2008)

A month ago, I wasn’t even aware I shared the planet with anyone named Christopher Moore (although I suppose that, if pressed, I would have regarded it as a strong statistical likelihood that an entity of that name existed). Christopher Moore, it turns out, is a writer, and while he doesn’t have nearly as many volumes to his credit as does Terry Pratchett, I’d say it’s only a matter of time. Moore seems to work fast.  A Dirty Job was released here in August, and he has other books being released in November and in December.

The Pratchett comparison is not coincidental. Christopher Moore is, like Pratchett, a comic writer, and here he’s on territory that would have some familiarity to Pratchett readers: the personification of Death. Only this isn’t the Discworld, this is modern-day San Francisco.

Charlie Asher is a beta male. A constant worrier, he’s convinced that his wife, about to give birth to their first child, is too good for him. He’s right to worry, in a sense, because his wife dies immediately after childbirth. But that’s not the worst of it, because Charlie sees, in his room, a tall dark figure who insists that Charlie shouldn’t be able to see him.  It turns out that Charlie’s wife’s death is not the greatest of his troubles … and Charlie Asher is about to learn, slowly and painfully, what it means to be a Death Merchant.

There’s a lot to like about Moore’s writing style. An early chapter has an extended aside on the biological fitness of the Beta Male: it had me laughing out loud, at way too early in the morning. My appreciation of its humour, as well as my concern for whether my laughter was too loud, obviously marks me as a beta male myself (possibly even tending to gamma, if that level exists), but I believe the book’s potential readership to extend beyond this particular subclass. [Another snippet which  resonated was Moore’s observation that, if you call your dog a ‘hellhound’, people will look around for the padded ambulance for which you’re obviously destined, but if you call it an ‘Irish hellhound’ they’ll happily accept it as simply a breed they haven’t heard of before.]

The comic treatment of death is a difficult angle to pull off. Pratchett undoubtedly manages it; here, Moore does too. One of the things which the book has going for it is that, while it’s unflinching in its recognition of tragedy, it maintains a consistently positive, propulsive tone. A 420-page book on death and dying could well be a daunting read, but A Dirty Job repeatedly engages the reader.  Moore is, I would say, a true comic writer, whose work here is often laugh-aloud funny without the recourse to satire or genre referencing found in the works of, for example, Douglas Adams or Jasper Fforde.  If I had to pick a writer whose style Moore evokes, it would be John Kennedy Toole (whose masterwork A Confederacy of Dunces is a personal favourite). Moore, like Toole, shows a facility for comically skewed but genuinely three-dimensional characters, a deft hand with heavily-populated scenes, and a wonderful ear for dialogue. Where the two part company is, perhaps, in the respect they accord their protagonists: Toole comes across as something of a misanthrope, whereas Moore seems able to present all of his characters sympathetically, even the obviously villainous, as though he’s determined to impart a positive spin on every sequential plot twist. A sort of ‘bright side of death’ approach, as the song says.

Are there flaws? Some of the characterisation – particularly of Mrs Ling, the elderly Chinese widow who lives in Charlie’s building, and of an unnamed Muslim passerby whom Charlie and Sophie encounter one morning while they’re out walking the hellhounds – inhabits the grey area between stereotypic and racist. There are, I think, structural problems as well, in the sense that the storyline undergoes several substantial jumps forward in time: the first third of the book is concerned with Charlie in the days and weeks following Rachel’s death and Sophie’s birth, but then several subsequent chapters spend only a few pages in each of the following half-dozen years, until we’re ready for the climactic confrontation between Death’s forces of good and its forces of evil. This kind of temporal foxtrotting would, I think, be acceptable if it flowed naturally from the plot, but by and large I don’t see that it does; and it’s particularly problematic in the sense that the character of Sophie, Charlie’s daughter, is accreted in a very stop-start fashion, and with changes in behaviour of such magnitude that it’s difficult to maintain a sense of Sophie’s continuity. (This isn’t such an issue with the adult characters, since the telescoping of events tends not to elicit such major transformations in them – indeed, some of them, particularly Charlie’s widow neighbours, seem frozen in time for the duration of the story.)

Overall, however, the book transcends these shortcomings, and retains its power to surprise – even when the penultimate plot twist seems such an open secret, you’ll wonder how Charlie could never have guessed it across the past six years since his wife’s death. A Dirty Job has, I think, just about everything you could wish for in a comic novel: it’s genuinely moving, consistently funny, and memorable.

Let’s face it, there’s only time to read just so many books before you die. I reckon, though, that this ought to be one of them.

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