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What Not to Read: Hell by Robert Olen Butler

I heard Robert Olen Butler interviewed recently about his new novel, Hell. (Isn’t it amazing that nearly everybody who appears on a talk show has a book or movie to sell?) At the close of that interview I felt fairly certain that I did not want to read this book. Having read a review of the same, I’m even more convinced.

My first reaction to the novel–and yes, I realize I’m forming an opinion about a book I have not read–is that Butler’s Hell seems to be exceptionally full of contemporary figures. We see Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Jackson, Presidents Bush and Clinton, and a host of other people who have been noteworthy over the past couple of decades. This seems absurdly convenient.

On the other hand, that other travel writer of Hell, Dante, found a lot of his recently deceased enemies (and a few friends) hanging about the various circles of the place. One can scarcely read the Inferno without recognizing that at least part of what Dante is doing is taking his slaps at people who have done him wrong.

From what I can gather, however, taking slaps at convenient targets seems to be about all Butler can manage. Where Dante wove his personal grudges into a much, much larger tapestry of politics and theology, Butler sounds like one of the denizens of Hell that Dante described, clueless as to the world beyond them.

Perhaps the most dismal thing about Butler’s work is that, unlike Dante, his protagonist cannot progress beyond Hell. In Butler’s Hell, there’s none of the cleaning up to be found in the Purgatory, and none of the ecstasy to be found in Paradise. In fact, there seems to be little of the structure and justice that Dante describes. To my mind, reading this novel would live up to its name.

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