I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect with “Hell,” particularly because Robert Olen Butler seems to divide so many creative writers. Many of us love him, and many others absolutely hate him. But, after finishing “Hell,” I can only say that it is impossible to dispute his talent.
Butler creates a magnificent vision of Hell, a place that feels tangible and real, and never bogged down by the sort of exaggeration that we hear from shouting pastors and evangelists. It’s an awful place that Butler imagines, sure, but it’s peopled with characters who struggle with their daily lives (lives?) and fear the wrath of Satan and wonder why they are here to begin with, and hope that their loved ones avoided this same fate. And it’s also a comic place, too, where the denizens are forced to spend entire days in traffic jams, or checking email, the sort of human activities that–once you read that they exist in Hell–sound almost worse than fire and brimstone. It’s funny, but it’s a real tribute to Butler that he captures in this slender volume all of the horrors of the modern world.
Again, though, Robert Olen Butler’s book succeeds because it is a human story, centered on a character who simply wants to learn why he has been forced to spend an eternity here. It’s tragic, but it’s never depressing, and always funny and interesting.
Close to the end, however, Butler becomes a bit too impressed by his own prose stylings, and the book loses some steam. The protagonist spends 40 or so pages by himself, wandering in the poetic interiority that Butler has crafted for him, and we wonder what happened to the engaging and crowded-with-characters narrative that Butler had been writing for the previous 180 pages.
That said, though, “Hell” was a true surprise. A world created in 200 pages, and a sympathetic character that never once felt pathetic or whiny, despite the fact that he was actually in Hell. Quite the accomplishment.