Thursday, January 19, 2023

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


I have been a part of the Literary Lush Book Club (a local book club) for a few years now. While I write up our current books as we go, I have also gone back and read some of the books that they read either before I joined, or books that I didn’t read at the time because I had a schedule conflict for the meeting. In this case, this is a book that they read before I joined, and one that I heard was good from a few different people. 


A Dirty Job is the first of two books that go together, and it also fits in the larger fantasy universe that all Christopher Moore books are a part of, although most of the books stand alone. If this book is any indication of the others, the imaginary universe that Moore creates is a lot like our own, but with supernatural elements and a heck of a lot of absurdity. Okay, so the absurdity also fits our own world, but still. Moore finds plenty of humor in the absurdity - a very dark humor. 


The basic premise of the book is that reincarnation is real, all the gods are real, particularly the various personifications of death. But it isn’t quite that simple. Souls migrate, but not all humans have souls. (As a character quips, “this explains the last election.”) One of the underworld jobs needed is that of Soul Merchants. These ordinary-looking people are given the name of someone who has recently died, or will die soon, and the task of finding the object that contains their soul. They must then take that object, and sell it to the person who will get that soul. The right person will be the one who buys the object. At least that is the way it is supposed to work. 


Charlie Asher runs a thrift store he inherited from his parents. He managed to find a wife, but she dies at the beginning of the book, soon after giving birth to their child. Charlie sees a mysterious man at her bedside, then starts seeing certain objects glow, gets a book explaining his new job…except his goth employee steals it, leading to significant delay before he figures out what is going on. In the meantime, these harpy creatures start stalking him, and two gigantic dogs appear to guard his infant daughter and…well, you’ll have to read the book. 


Set in San Francisco, like many of Moore’s books, it combines dark humor, a feckless protagonist, malevolent supernatural creatures, and a lot of weird stuff. Unlike any book I have read, it also includes the “squirrel people,” inspired by the creations of Monique Motil. (Look under “creatures.”)


 Moore grew up with a cop for a father, and this shows in this book, with three characters with law enforcement background or current employment. Apparently, dealing with weird shit was part of the job, so Moore heard a lot of it. Weird raven-women who can’t be killed aren’t that far off from some of the real-life stories that are out there. 


I’m not entirely sure I am the target audience for this book, but it was still a fun vacation read. My main quibble with it were the cheap and lazy Chinese stereotypes (they eat everything, amirite?) Since the book was published in 2006, I would have thought those would have been excised by the editor, but apparently not. 


The best part of the book were the imagination in conceiving the central idea and the fun details, and the one-line zingers throughout. I’ll try to quote a few of those. 


Charlie, like many guys, gets a little weird after the birth of his daughter. Rachel, before she dies suddenly and unexpectedly, explains to little Sophie what is going on. 


“Sophie, your Papa isn’t really insane. He just hasn’t slept for a couple of days.”


There are pictures of us after the births of our children. My wife looks really good. I look like death warmed over. And so it goes. 


A central idea in this book is that of the “Beta Male.” This isn’t meant in any scientifically defensible way, but in the cultural way we find it used. The idea is played for laughs, mostly, but also for some observations about human social structures. This passage was pretty funny, but also perceptive. 


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 mastadons, 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.


Again, not scientific - Alpha Males aren’t what is described here, particularly - but not a bad explanation of a facet of human society. I’m a proud Beta, and I agree that we are what makes the world go round. 


Another of the Betas in this story is Ray, a former cop who was medically retired after taking a bullet. He is incompetent with women, to say the least, and is always on dubious scam dating sites like “” The pictures are as fake as you would expect. These jokes tend to be more funny than the race-based ones. But there is also a cross-over joke that was pretty good. Ray is infatuated with another “girl” on a site. Charlie tries to point out she is a fake profile. 


“Ray, look at her. She looks like one of those Asian models for Sour Apple Flavored Calamari Treats.” 

“They have that?”

Charlie pointed to the left side of the front window. “Ray, let me introduce you to Chinatown. Chinatown, this is Ray. Ray, Chinatown.”


The reason this joke is actually funny is that snacks like this are real. My second kid is really into stuff from Japan (she’s double-majoring in Environmental Science and Japanese), so we got her a subscription to Bokksu. She gets a monthly selection of treats, which she usually shares with those of us brave enough. While I do not specifically remember Sour Apple Calamari, some of them were darn close enough. 


The highest form of humor, however, is puns. I’ll fight you about that. Wordplay is a sign of high intelligence and a sign of a sense of humor that does not depend on making fun of others. This book is riddled with bad - or good - puns. Even the chapter titles are wordplay. My favorite is chapter 7, entitled “Thanatoast.” 


Another literary reference I loved was this one:


Charlie had noticed the alley on one of his walks to the financial district. It lay between Montgomery and Kearney Streets and had all the things a good alley should have: fire escapes, Dumpsters, various steel doors tagged with graffiti, a rat, two seagulls, assorted filth, a guy passed out under some cardboard, and a half-dozen “No Parking” signs, three with bullet holes. It was the Platonic ideal of an alley…


Throughout the first part of the book, Charlie keeps bringing pets home for Sophie, all of which soon die. (It takes a long time before Charlie realizes that Sophie can kill with a single word - this will be important later in the book too.) Anyway, at one point, there is this passage:


At the pet store he picked out two painted turtles, each a bout as big around as a mayonnaise-jar lid. He bought them a large kidney-shaped dish that had its own island, a plastic palm tree, some aquatic plants, and a snail. The snail, presumably, to bolster the self-esteem of the turtles: “You think we’re slow? Look at that guy.” To shore up the snail’s morale in the same way, there was a rock. Everyone is happier if they have someone to look down on, as well as someone to look up to, especially if they resent both. This is not only the Beta Male strategy for survival, but the basis for capitalism, democracy, and most religions.


Zing! I’m afraid I am agreeing with that last line more and more these days, at least as applied to capitalism and religion. 


Speaking of religion, there is a scene involving a radical (and possibly insane) Muslim who objects to the fact that one of the two hellhounds sent to protect Sophie is named Mohammed. (The other is named Alvin - that’s what the name tags said when they appeared, and nobody argues with a hellhound…) 


Charlie, feeling pissy is having none of it. 


“I tried calling him something else, but he doesn’t listen. Watch. Steve, bite this man’s leg? See, nothing. I might as well be speaking Farsi. You see where I’m going with this?”

“Well, I have named my dog Jesus. How do you feel about that?”

“Well, then I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you’d lost your dog.”

“I have not lost my dog.”

“Really? I saw these flyers all over town with ‘Have You Found Jesus?’ on them. It must be another dog named Jesus.” 


I’d wince more about the Muslim stereotype here if we weren’t currently dealing with a brouhaha - again - about the depiction of Mohammed. I’m glad CAIR seems to be acting reasonably, for the most part. But I wish we could be clear that there is nothing inherent to religion that demands more respect than any other idea. I get that in the US, Muslims are a minority, and subjected to violence and hate. I also don’t go out of my way to insult religions (although I sure as hell speak out about the toxic tradition I came from.) But I think we can and should also be clear that religion is not immune from criticism - indeed from mocking when appropriate. If your religion is threatened by criticism or mockery, then it is pretty damn weak and insecure. 


Unexpectedly, there is a rather poignant scene in the book. Charlie’s mother has been hiding her cancer until she is on her deathbed. Charlie and his sister, Jane come to visit her one last time. The final scenes are surprisingly thoughtful, with the complexities of family and rivalry. Jane is a lesbian who has never been fully accepted by her mother, Charlie is the black sheep for other reasons. The two of them get along, but have had issues with mom. There isn’t exactly a cheap reconciliation, but that nostalgic return to the past of childhood and memories that didn’t really happen that way. Moore dedicates the book to hospice workers, and he really means it. In a book that is otherwise pretty snarky and weird and funny and crazy, this middle scene transcends for a moment. As Charlie tells his sister, who is torn between mourning her dying mother, and wanting to punch her (for good reason, too):


“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re doing the same thing, trying to reconcile all the moms that Mom ever was - the one you wanted, the one she was when you needed her and she was there, the one she was when she didn’t understand. Most of us don’t live our lives with one, integrated self that meets the world, we’re a whole bunch of selves. When someone dies, they all integrate into the soul - the essence of who we are, beyond the different faces we wear throughout our lives. You’re just hating the selves you’ve always hated, and loving the ones you’ve always loved. It’s bound to mess you up.”


Charlie has thought this through because of Rachel’s death, combined with his new profession as a Death Merchant. I will admit this one hit home a lot. For the last couple of years, I have been grieving the loss of my parents. They aren’t dead, but the good people who raised me are, and the bigots who replaced them have cut me out of their lives. This idea that there are multiple selves at play makes a lot of sense. There are the ones I loved deeply and thoroughly, who gave me a really good childhood, who tried so hard for so long to do right by me. And then there are the selves who dragged me into a cult, limited my education and career options, rejected my wife, played favorites with my sister, and who have gone down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole. I have wondered what the end of their lives will look like. Will my narcissistic sister completely isolate them from the rest of us? Probably - and that would be the easiest because there will be no impossible decisions to make. But what if, after throwing me away for years, they do the death-bed thing? Man, I really do not know how that will go down, and what the right decision would be for me at that time. It’s complicated. 


After this serious moment, Moore lightens the mood a bit. Jane wonders how Charlie all of a sudden got to be so spiritual. I mean, he wouldn’t even go to yoga with her. 


“I wouldn’t go to yoga with you because I’m not bendy, not because I’m not spiritual.”


Yeah, me too. 


Eventually, Charlie’s secret life ends up coming out in the open. I guess the increasingly materialized manifestations of the harpies are hard to ignore. There is a bizarrely sexual scene where one tries to kill Charlie, but he is saved by Rivera, his cop friend. Rivera tries to explain a bit of what happened to his partner, Cavuto. 


“Ever think to ask Asher how he happened to know the flying bulletproof bird woman in the first place?” 

“Yeah I did, but I can’t tell you what he said. It’s too weird.”

Cavuto threw his arms in the air. “Well, sweet Tidy Bowl Jesus skipping on the blue toilet water, we wouldn’t want it to get fucking weird, would we?”


One of the secondary characters is another death merchant, Minty Fresh. (Yeah, names are fun in this book…) He runs a second-hand music store, and nearly gets himself killed by the harpies when he goes across the bay to Oakland to listen to some live jazz. There is an interesting passage where Minty compares jazz to zen. 


Jazz was a Zen art, dig? Controlled spontaneity. Like sumi-e ink painting, like haiku, like archery, like kendo fencing - jazz wasn’t something you planned, it was something you did. You practiced, you played your scales, you learned your chops, then you brought all your knowledge, your conditioning, to the moment…Like the swordsman, the archer, the poet, and the painter - it’s all right there - no future, no past, just that moment and how you deal with it. Art happens. 


That is a fantastic description of it. I have done a decent bit of improvisatory music, and that is absolutely how it happens. 


Without spoiling things too much, toward the end, Minty and Charlie team up with a female Buddhist monk and the squirrel people to take on the legions of darkness. (Yeah, there is a lot of background there.) Before the big showdown, Charlie finally gets laid. (Jane and the rest of the women in the book have been trying to make this happen for some time - ascribing his increasing paranoia to a lack of sex.) In any case, after they do the deed, I love Charlie’s exchange with Minty.


“How’re you doing?”

“I accidentally shagged a monk last night.”

“Sometimes, in times of crisis, that shit cannot be avoided. How are you doing besides that?”


I wouldn’t call this book literature or anything, but it was fun. Not quite a light read, perhaps, but pretty close. It had enough of the “what bizarre thing is the author going to come up with next” factor that I like, even if it had a lot of genre conventions. I brought it with me to a rainy weekend at the beach (a lot more fun than that sounds…) and it definitely fit the bill as a beach read. 


I will probably take a look at the other Christopher Moore books that friends have enjoyed, as this one was memorable. 


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