Not very many of us think about death on a daily basis. Not only is it depressing, but it could end up being self-defeating in a, “what’s the point of this, we’re all going to die in the end anyway,” sort of way. Letting your mind go down that avenue is to invite anxiety and all his buddies over for a long-term visit.
But in Christopher Moore’s latest novel, A Dirty Job, Charlie Asher really doesn’t have much choice in the matter. First of all, his beloved wife Rachel dies just after giving birth to their first child, and secondly, his new job of retrieving the souls of the newly dead, to keep them safe for their next host, has made death part of his daily routine.
His routine is: get up in the morning, check the daybook for any names that have mysteriously appeared there, go to their homes, retrieve the soul of the recently departed, and take it back to his secondhand store where he will sell it to its next body.
It’s not as tricky as it sounds. First, the soul is usually contained in some object that would be sold in a secondhand store: a clock radio, used suit, or even a blender. It doesn’t hurt that they also glow bright red, and when he’s about the business of soul retrieval most people just don’t happen to notice Charlie. He just slips into the house, picks up the object, and takes it back to the store where it waits for its next possessor to come along and buy it.
Of course, as with all cases of death, Charlie’s initial reaction to finding out that he was an agent of death was denial. It wasn’t untilThe Great Big Book of Death showed up that he truly got a grip on the subject at hand. The 28 glossy illustrated pages boiled it down in a nutshell: he was to retrieve souls, pass them on to their new recipients, and never let them end up in the hands of the Forces of Darkness that are continually waiting to take over the world.
The problem is, according to The Great Big Book of Death, that some time ago Luminatus, or the Great Death, who kept the balance between light and darkness, ceased to be. Ever since, the Forces of Darkness have been trying to rise from below to gobble up all the souls. Charlie, and a few others who do the same task, have been tapped as substitute guardians of the collective souls of humanity until another Luminatus can be born and restore the balance.
In San Francisco, where Charlie lives, the Forces of Darkness have shown up as the Morrigan, three personifications of death in the form of beautiful women who can take the shape of Ravens. Very nasty pieces of work, they lurk in the sewer systems and yell threats up at Charlie as he passes by. The more souls they are able to get their claws on, the stronger and more of a threat they become to the world.
Can you see where all this is going? Sure you can, the ultimate showdown between the forces of good and evil miles under the streets of San Francisco, and you just know neither Karl Malden nor Michael Douglas are going to show up to the rescue.
But it’s the trip along the way that always makes a Christopher Moore book a pleasure, even if you can take a stab at guessing how it will end. A Dirty Job has to have some of the funniest moments of any book I’ve read in ages. I can’t remember reading another book that has left me laughing so hard that I was gasping for air and crying.
But it’s not just the humour that makes this book special. Through Charlie’s eyes we gain a new perspective on death and dying. At the beginning of the book when his wife dies, Charlie’s confusion and sense of loss is palatable. He clings to his newborn daughter as both a reason for living and a memorial to his wife.
But Moore also uses Charlie to bring us into more direct contact with death than most of will experience in any other fiction we will read or watch on screen. I don’t mean people being gunned down in a hail of bullets or ripped apart by some psycho ghost from hell, but real death where every last moment is a moment to be cherished and experienced, where hospice workers sit with the patient and make them and the families as comfortable as possible with the letting go of life.
Charlie soon becomes an old hand at death and learns about how people in their last days will seemingly stage a miraculous recovery and get up out of their beds one last time before passing away. Death doesn’t have to be ugly and horrible. Sometimes it’s even a relief for those who have suffered in their last days.
Dotted throughout this book of wild and chaotic humour and bizarre twisted events, are moments of absolute beauty that ring even more true because of their context. By contrasting the sublime with the ridiculous, Moore makes the former more potent and the latter slightly less inane.
Somehow Moore has managed to write a book about death that can make us laugh at our biggest fears while not making fun of them. Death is serious business, but doesn’t necessarily have to be taken seriously all the time.
Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job is a hysterical examination of life, death, and all the other stages in between that nobody likes to talk about. But be forewarned, don’t be surprised if you walk away after reading it feeling a lot kinder towards death than you did before.