Good Omens is a story about the End Times.
Did I know I was going to be reading a book about the End Times approximately a year before the End Times actually showed up? Nope! But here we are.
Good Omens stars an angel (Aziraphale) and a demon (Crowley, formerly Crawley; and yes, he was the serpent in the Garden of Eden, good guess) that have forged a friendship in spite of their alignment. Eleven years prior to the beginning of this book, Crowley had been tasked with planting the Antichrist in the family of an American ambassador, setting the gears in motion towards Armageddon.
Crowley, in spite of being firmly on the side of Hell and Satan, etc., does not want Armageddon to happen. He likes what the humans have done to Earth – the alcohol, the music — and the fact that with modernization, the tempting of souls has become super easy.
Oh, he did his best to make their short lives miserable, because that was his job, but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up for themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it. It was built into the design, somehow. They were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and then devoted most of their energies to making it worse. Over the years Crowley had found it increasingly difficult to to find anything demonic to do which showed up against the natural background of generalized nastiness. There had been times, over the past millennium, when he’d felt like sending a message back Below saying, Look, we may as well give up right now, we might as well shut down Dis and Pandemonium and everywhere and move up here, there’s nothing we can do to them that they don’t do themselves and they do things we’ve never even thought of, often involving electrodes. They’ve got what we lack. They’ve got imagination. And electricity, of course. [p. 43]
Wow – rereading that paragraph after having watched all of The Good Place is really striking now.
Anyway. Crowley doesn’t want Armageddon to happen because he’s comfortable. He lets Aziraphale know that Armageddon has been put into motion, but Aziraphale doesn’t want to go against the Holy Plan. Luckily, Crowley is excellent at tempting people (including angels), and manages to convince Aziraphale that they should both spend the next eleven years helping to bring up the child – Crowley, in the guise of a nanny, will “try” and tempt him over to the side of Darkness and Hell, and Aziraphale will counter Crowley’s lessons with his own, of goodness and light.
And it worked!
Except there was a mix-up at the hospital, and the Antichrist was not actually given to the American Ambassador.
The Antichrist – Adam Young – grows up in Tadfield, and is overall a nice, normal boy. On his eleventh birthday, he and his playmates – known as the Them – are hanging out in the woods, like they normally do, and just as Adam says he wants a dog for his birthday, a stray dog comes bounding out of a thicket. The dog doesn’t have an owner, so Adam keeps him, and names him Dog.
What Adam doesn’t know, is that Dog is actually a hellhound. The hellhound was supposed to be named something terrifying; it would give a tenor to the Armageddon. But being named Dog … the hound is very confused.
Aziraphale and Crowley realize that the Ambassador’s son is not the Antichrist when a hellhound doesn’t show up at the son’s eleventh birthday party. So now they’re on the hunt for where the actual Antichrist ended up, and they each (yet separately) enlist the help of their covert aids, the Witchfinder Army, led by Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell. Shadwell sends his best man – and his only man -, Witchfinder Private Pulsifer, who happens to be a descendant of Witchfinder Major Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer. The olde Witchfinder Pulsifer had been the one to bring about the death of Agnes Nutter.
The subtitle to Good Omens is The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Agnes had managed to predict pretty much everything leading up to Armageddon, and some other, non-related prophecy stuff. Her descendants, the Devices, have dedicated their lives to trying to stay one step ahead of Armageddon. And now, the week of Adam Young’s birthday, and the week Armageddon begins, the last descendant of Agnes, a young witch named Anathema Device, is living in Tadfield.
I really, really liked this book. I also really enjoyed the adaptation on Amazon Prime, starring David Tennant as Crowley and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale. (Plus Jon Hamm as Gabriel! Michael McKean as Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell! And others!) What I really liked about the book is twofold (and honestly, both of them are probably attributable to Terry Pratchett and not Neil Gaiman):
(1) For a book that clocks in at just shy of 500 pages, the plot zipped along.
(2) The humor is excellent.
Now, here’s where I feel I have to be upfront and tell all of y’all that I have tried to get through American Gods I think three times, and the farthest I’ve gotten is maybe Part I. I … I don’t know what it is. I like the concept of American Gods; but to me, the plot dragged and there wasn’t a lot of personality to the characters. (Don’t hold me to that – it’s been a while since I’ve tried to get through it, and it may just have been fatigue. You know me, I’ll try to finish it again … sometime … before I die. Maybe.)
So the humor bit – I think that’s the key element that was missing from American Gods. I feel like AG may have had a lot of ironical humor, as opposed to … funny humor? I don’t know, I’m in the middle of a pandemic, my brain isn’t great anymore. But between Crowley and Aziraphale’s drunk conversation about the end of the world(*), the footnotes(**), and just … the little touches that bring characters to life without being stodgy or … or whatever, I don’t know, I just know I liked it and thought it was better.
(*) Crowley is trying to tell Aziraphale that bringing about Armageddon would destroy a lot of innocent bystanders – namely, members of the animal kingdom, including dolphins.
Crowley pulled himself together. “The point is. The point is. Their brains.”
He reached for a bottle.
“What about their brains?” said the angel.
“Big brains. That’s my point. Size of. Size of. Size of damn big brains. And then there’s the whales. Brain city, take it from me. Whole damn sea full of brains.”
“Kraken,” said Aziraphale, staring moodily into his glass.
Crowley gave him the long cool look of someone who has just had a girder dropped in front of his train of thought.
“Great big bugger,” said Aziraphale. “Sleepeth beneath the thunders of the upper deep. Under loads of huge and unnumbered polypol — polipo — bloody great seaweeds, you know. Supposed to rise to the surface right at the end, when the sea boils.”
“There you are, then,” said Crowley, sitting back. “Whole sea bubbling, poor old dolphins so much seafood gumbo, no one giving a damn.” [p. 62]
(**) Then there’s this discussion regarding the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, which I think illustrates what I like about Good Omens so much – it has character points, it’s a digression that leads into the plot, involves footnotes, and just a touch of absurdist humor.
How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?
In order to arrive at an answer, the following facts must be taken into consideration:
Firstly, angels simply don’t dance. It’s one of the distinguishing characteristics that mark an angel. They may listen appreciatively to the Music of the Spheres, but they don’t feel the urge to get down and boogie to it. So, none.
At least, nearly none. Aziraphale had learned to gavotte in a discreet gentlemen’s club in Portland Place, in the late 1880s, and while he had initially taken to it like a duck to merchant banking, after a while he had become quite good at it, and was quite put out when, some decades later, the gavotte went out of style for good.
So providing the dance was a gavotte, and providing that he had a suitable partner (also able, for the sake of argument, both to gavotte, and to dance it on the head of a pin), the answer is a straightforward one.
Then again, you might just as well ask how many demons can dance on the head of a pin. They’re of the same original stock, after all. And at least they dance*.
And if you put it that way, the answer is, quite a lot actually, providing they abandon their physical bodies, which is a picnic for a demon. Demons aren’t bound by physics. If you take the long view, the universe is just something small and round, like those water-filled balls which produce a miniature snowstorm when you shake them.**
*Although it’s not what you and I would call dancing. Not good dancing anyway. A demon moves like a white band on “Soul Train.”
**Although, unless the ineffable plan is a lot more ineffable than it’s given credit for, it does not have a giant plastic snowman at the bottom. [p. 303-304]
Finally, the Guster Reading Challenge song for Good Omens has to be “Jesus and Mary” off of Easy Wonderful (another song I don’t think I’ve listened to). Why? Because Good Omens is clearly “a book that features angels or a rapture/biblical end times.”
Check and mate, Guster.
Grade for Good Omens: 4 stars