Book Review: In Print: Texas Book Festival Authors

In this comic novel set in the underworld, Butler swings for the fences but creates little more than a breeze

In Print: Texas Book Festival Authors

Hell: A Novel

by Robert Olen Butler
Grove Press, 240 pp., $24

Setting a novel in hell takes confidence. The kind of confidence that a Pulitzer Prize instills in a person, no doubt. That could be the reason behind Robert Olen Butler's recent literary descent into the fiery afterlife. Or perhaps he just felt it was time someone updated the long since dated denizens of Dante's Inferno. Either way, Butler swings for the fences but creates little more than a breeze.

The action follows ex-TV newsman Hatcher McCord as he stumbles over the afterlife's many tripwires in hell. If he's not reluctantly introducing fluff news pieces about the populace of Hades, then he's stumbling around the bedroom with a loose-headed Anne Boleyn or trying to figure why exactly he's doomed for eternity (a popular pastime in hell). In fact, heaven is so packed with sinners no one can think of anyone left to keep God company. All this leaves McCord with little hope, until he scores an on-air interview with Satan himself. Like in the Inferno, it becomes apparent that while Satan is surely ground zero for evil, that doesn't make him all-powerful by any means: a realization that sets into motion a daring escape plan that includes no shortage of historical figures and pop-culture icons.

Many references will surely date the book, but cursing contemporaries to damnation didn't start with South Park. It started with Dante himself. Snoop Dogg (who inspires Butler to pen the book's worst comedic moments as the reader is cursed to read "shizzle" jokes) sits in the contemporary pantheon of pop culture much in the same way Guido da Montefeltro resided in the 14th century equivalent of gossip rags for his bad papal advice. The Inferno likely was that gossip rag, but at least it had legs. Hell instead trips over its own ambitions and never adds another layer to the otherwise palpable underworld of claustrophobia, paranoia, and pain Butler creates. There are laughs to be had for sure, but as the final chapters start reaching for meaning, it becomes obvious that "carpe diem" platitudes are still platitudes, even when spoken from an edgy and personal version of Beelzebub's backyard.


Robert Olen Butler will appear at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 31 (2:30-3:30pm, Senate Chamber), as part of the panel The World as It Isn't. For more info, visit www.texasbookfestival.org.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Hell
Gay Place
Gay Place
Halloqueers and Dia de las Lezbos, just another wild weekend in the gAyTX

Kate X Messer, Nov. 1, 2013

More Robert Olen Butler
Fun for the Whole Family
Fun for the Whole Family
Traversing the Texas Book Festival

Kimberley Jones, Nov. 6, 2009

More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by James Renovitch
Dave Chappelle to Do Three Shows at Stubb's
Dave Chappelle to Do Three Shows at Stubb's
Tickets are on sale now and will go fast!

Nov. 13, 2020

So You Want to Vote
So You Want to Vote
A flowchart to help guide you through mail-in ballots, voter registration

Sept. 4, 2020

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Book Festival, Hell, Robert Olen Butler

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle