A Dirty Job is a book about death. And it’s hilarious.
It’s Christopher Moore, after all.
As with all really funny books, there’s a deeper meaning to the laughs in A Dirty Job, published in 2006. Think of Terry Pratchett’s ridiculously humorous novels about his fantasy Discworld which grapple with real-life issues such as racism, pollution, technology, war, stick-up-the-ass-ness and, yes, death. All the time, Death. (Well, he is a major character in the series.)
Reading A Dirty Job, I couldn’t help but wonder what Pratchett and Moore would have thought of each other and how they might — or might not — have gotten along if they’d met. (Alas, Pratchett died in March, 2015.)
Their books are the products of writers with a skewed vision of the world and, for all their great humor, a sorrowful one as well. You can’t laugh if everything in life is just hunky-dory. Tragedy, though, betrayal, pain and, yes, again, death — these are what bring on the hilarity. Either that, or it’s a weepfest.
A Dirty Job opens and closes with a death. In the first pages, Charlie Asher’s wife Rachel dies, leaving him with their newborn daughter Sophie. Charlie discovers that, for reasons he never figures out, he’s a Death Merchant which sounds pretty ominous but simply means he is one or several people in the San Francisco area whose side job involves going around to collect soul vessels from the dying.
A soul vessel is something — say, a Sarah McLachlan CD or a small paperweight in the shape of a turtle — that contains a person’s soul.
In the cosmology of A Dirty Job, people are born without a soul and, at some point in their life, find one when they come in contact with the vessel containing the soul that’s meant for them. Got it?
A collection service
Like any other Death Merchant, Charlie’s job, after collecting soul vessels, is to keep them safe until the right person comes along.
Meanwhile, Charlie comes to understand that he and the other Death Merchants are being opposed by the Forces of the Underworld, including Orcus and the Morrigan (a three-bodied woman who’s like a Valkyrie but worse).
And everyone who’s in the know is awaiting the arrival of Luminatus — Death with a capital “D.” (See why I think Moore and Pratchett would have gotten along?)
In telling his story, Moore is always ready with a wisecrack, sometimes as simple as a pun, such as when the Morrigan collect human skulls from the cemetery for Orcus to munch on. Moore notes that they needed to dig up the skulls for their evil boss because “Orcus liked them decoffinated.”
Charlie, from the novel’s first pages, is very aware of his position as a Beta Male who, because of his imagination, is able to avoid dangerous things that an Alpha Male must face to show his arrogance and courage.
In fact, Charlie sees himself and the other Death Merchants as sort of Beta Male spies — a kind of
“bad comb-over, deep-cover bureaucrat fishing coffee-sodden documents out of a Dumpster….[the sort of agent whose] overt nonthreatingness allows him access to places and people that are closed to the Alpha Male, wearing his testosterone on his sleeve.
“A very tall black man”
Another Death Merchant is the owner of a used record store who is “a very tall black man dressed in mint green.”
His name? Minty Fresh
“What, your mother name you after a mouthwash ad?”
Mr. Fresh, looking somewhat vulnerable for a man of his size, said, “Toothpaste, actually.”
…”You could have changed it, right?”
“Mr. Asher, you can resist who you are for only so long. Finally you decide to just go with fate. For me that has involved being black being seven feet all — yet not in the NBA — being named Minty Fresh, and being recruited as a Death Merchant…I have learned to accept and embrace all those things.”
Mr. Fresh, by the way, drives a 1957 El Dorado that Moore describes this way:
The bloodred lacquered Eldo slid around the corner, tires screaming like flaming peacocks, hubcaps spinning off toward the curb, engine roaring, spewing blue smoke out of the rear wheel wells like a flatulent dragon.
“The best cheese”
The heart of A Dirty Job occurs about halfway through the book when Charlie goes to a home to collect the soul vessel of Madeline Alby who is on her deathbed with her family and friends around her.
She has a taste for cheese and crackers, and her hospice nurse brings them in.
(By the way, A Dirty Job has a double-barreled dedication: “This book is dedicated to Patricia Moss who was as generous in sharing her death as she was in sharing her life. AND To hospice workers and volunteers all over the world.” It’s clear that Moore is no stranger to death.)
So, anyway, the nurse brings in the cheese, and Madeline begins eating it:
“I believe this is the best cheese I’ve ever tasted,” Madeline said.
Charlie could tell from the expression on her face that it was, indeed, the best cheese she had ever tasted. Every ounce of her being was going into tasting those slivers of cheddar, and she let loose little moans of pleasure as she chewed.
“In his pocket”
She makes a joke about sharing the cheese with Charlie whom the nurse can’t see, saying he’s so thin “he could use some fucking cheese.”
Then, she laughed, spraying more crackers on the nurse, who was laughing, too, and trying not to dump the plate….
Then the two sons and the daughter entered, chagrined at first at what they heard, but then laughing with the nurse and their mother. “I said that cheese is good,” Madeline said.
“Yeah, Mom, it is,” said the daughter…
Charlie slipped out the door with her soul in his pocket.
A Dirty Job is a sad, playful, whimsical, bleak and hopeful novel.
Sort of like life.
Patrick T. Reardon