I’m not sure why I grabbed this one next – I think it’s because I had just put the sequel to this book on my Christmas list, and it made me remember that it’s been a very long time since I read this. That, or it was near Halloween and this seemed appropriate at the time. I’m not really sure.
Anyway. A Dirty Job takes place in San Francisco, and we meet Charlie Asher on the best and worst day of his life. His wife, Rachel, has just given birth, and in the time it takes Charlie to rush home and grab her favorite Sarah MacLachlan CD and get back to the hospital, she’s sadly passed away. But just before she crashes, there’s a tall black man wearing mint green standing at the end of her bed.
“What are you doing here?”
The man in mint green turned, startled. “You can see me?” He gestured to his chocolate-brown tie, and Charlie was reminded, just for a second, of those thin mints they put on the pillow in nicer hotels.
“Of course I can see you. What are you doing here?”
Charlie moved to Rachel’s bedside, putting himself between the stranger and his family. Baby Sophie seemed fascinated by the tall black man.
“This is not good,” said Mint Green. [p. 8]
Rachel dies shortly thereafter. During the shivah, Charlie goes downstairs from his apartment building into the secondhand store he operates, and notices that a bunch of stuff in his shop are glowing red, as if lit from the inside by a red LED light. He writes it off to exhaustion and grief, but the lights don’t fade with time.
Two weeks later he happens to be near a guy when the guy gets run over by a bus, and the guy’s umbrella starts glowing red at the same time. Freaked, Charlie runs home and doesn’t tell anyone about it. Meanwhile, a book addressed to Charlie at the pawn shop’s address arrives, and his assistant, Lily, who is obsessed with all things goth, opens it and keeps it instead.
And that’s how Charlie doesn’t realize he’s become a Death Merchant until almost too late.
Essentially, he and Minty Fresh – the tall black guy from the hospital – and a few other dealers in secondhand estate items are tasked with finding the souls of the dead and making sure they get passed on to the right people. When Rachel was in the hospital, Minty Fresh got the word that she was dying, and at her death her soul was trapped in the Sarah McLachlan CD. During the time of a soul retrieval, the Death Merchant is practically invisible, allowing them to go into houses and take the glowing items right out from under the family’s noses.
Charlie eventually learns that he is a Death Merchant, and he does very well at managing the balance – after all, he still has his normal thrift store to run, as well as raise a child without a mother. But something has shifted beneath the streets of San Francisco, and the Morrigan – Celtic war goddesses, here used as soldiers of Orcus, the Roman god of the underworld. If the Morrigan get hold of human souls, they become stronger. And they want to become strong enough to turn the above-world into Hell.
Now, this all sounds very, very dark. And you’re probably wondering, “what in the world happened to Christopher Moore, the same guy who made Jesus so funny, to turn so dark?” Look, trust me – the book is funny. Charlie Asher revels in his beta-maledom so much that he practically writes a manifesto.
Plus, existentialist jokes!
“Why isn’t that kid in school?” [Officer] Rivera asked.
“She’s special,” Charlie said. “You know, homeschooled.”
“That what makes her so cheerful?”
“She’s studying the Existentialists this month. Asked for a study day last week to kill an Arab on the beach.” [p. 70]
Maybe it’s only funny to me. But look, you go read The Stranger by Albert Camus in its original French (L’Étranger) and then read that; it becomes way funnier.
There are also two cops, Rivera and Cavuto, who keep stumbling across the Death Merchant shenanigans and the explanations Charlie comes up with are just … so perfect.
Plus, this book contains one of my favorite quotes in the history of everything:
Cavuto threw his arms in the air. “Well, sweet Tidy Bowl Jesus skipping on the blue toilet water, we wouldn’t want it to get fucking weird, would we?” [p. 256]
I’m going to make a sampler out of that; mark my words.
And while a comic romp through the Underworld and Death Merchants is extremely funny in Mr. Moore’s hands, I do want to point out that there are a number of poignant moments in this novel. Charlie is a Death Merchant; therefore, he comes in contact with people dying as part of his now-normal course of action. There is an amazing chapter where he gets to the house of a dying woman earlier than anticipated, and she can actually see him and converse with him. Her family think she’s having a morphine-induced hallucination and let her enjoy it, but Charlie knows she can see him. He stays with her until the very end, and Jesus, I’m tearing up thinking about it now. It’s just so sweet and respectful of what happens to people when a loved one dies, and it’s an important moment to take in the midst of all the fighting for the ruler of the Underworld.
*sniff* ANYWAY. The last thing that happens in this book that I want to discuss is how Mr. Moore expands one of his universes. A book published prior to Lamb and this novel was Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story. That book is the story of Jody, a woman who gets turned into a vampire against her will and her struggle with the change, all the while falling in love with a grocer. The cops Rivera and Cavuto are in that book, as well as the Emperor of San Francisco and his two soldier dogs, Lazarus and Bummer. The cops and the Emperor all feature in A Dirty Job, and Jody makes a cameo in it as well. Bloodsucking Fiends continues with You Suck and Bite Me, which come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve read Bite Me. Oh god, do I even own Bite Me? I’d run and go check, but I’m not currently at my house. Dammit!
Well, what I’m trying to say is that, because of my need for completion and chronological order when given the opportunity for chronological order, I’ll probably read the Bloodsucking Fiends trilogy before picking up the sequel to A Dirty Job, entitled Secondhand Souls.
And since I didn’t get that one for Christmas, that timeline works out very well for me.
Grade for A Dirty Job: 4 stars