A Dirty Job
by Christopher Moore
"It was watching Madeline Alby eat cheese with every ounce of her being, like it was the first and best time, that made him realize he had never really tasted cheese, or crackers, or life. And he didn't want his daughter to live that way ... He wanted her to experience all the glorious cheese of life."
Charlie Asher is a Beta Male, with all the wonderful neuroses that implies. He is happily married to the clever, funny, steadying Rachel who balances out his panicked fidgeting with a calm, wry presence. That is... until she dies, and Charlie is shanghaied into becoming a Death Merchant, effectively a reaper, who collects the souls of the dead which are stored in objects, and helping them move to their next life. Oh, and he is now a single dad.
This is my favorite of all the Christopher Moore books I have read (Lamb and Fool). While along with Lamb, it has spiritual truth mixed in with its sharp, naughty humor, A Dirty Job also has heart, deep compassion, and a rich, full-bodied flavor... if that makes any sense. Lamb and Fool were based on established characters, whereas A Dirty Job is all Moore. He lets his devilish creativity out to play, and the love he puts in to every one of the people (and animals) of this book is palpable.
The first chapter is one of the most perfect pieces of writing I have ever read. If is heart-warming, witty, irreverent, shocking, and primal-screamingly tragic at the same time, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book. Moore makes you fall in love with Charlie and Rachel, and then smashes that relationship away from you in the blink of an eye.
The rest of the book is devoted to Charlie mourning his wife, discovering he is "a Death," and coming into his own as a snazzy-suit-wearing, sword-cane-wielding purveyor of ensouled objects, all while trying to raise a daughter (Sophie), fight rising evil, and placate the whirlwind of zany characters that inundate his life. While some of the characters are comically, and occasionally uncomfortably stereotypical (Ms. Ling and Ms. Korjev, Charlie's neighbors who look after Sophie and are referred to as the "great powers of Asia"), there are also characters like Inspector Rivera, a cop who has seen a lot of weird stuff, so takes things like Charlie throwing firecrackers in the sewer drains or trying to kill old ladies with cement blocks in stride, or the Emperor of San Fransisco, the homeless wanderer with the weight of the city on his shoulders, or Minty Fresh, the mint green suit wearing African American giant, or Lily, the goth chick who works in Charlie's second hand store. Or Sophie's hellhound babysitters. Or the triumvirate of spirit women called the Morrigan who live in the sewers and are trying to royally fuck with, and possibly eviscerate Charlie and all his friends.
This book is not perfect. It starts out with one kind of pacing, and then suddenly newborn Sophie has dialogue and she is five. The book spans a lot more time than expected. The story seems to be structured like a beaded necklace, with awesome bits strung together with "and then some stuff happened for a few years." Its not really a huge problem, just jarring at times.
The author also seems to lose his way towards the end, uncertain as to how to get to his resolution. There is a lot of driving around to different locations, as if the author didn't know where the final stand against evil would be, and some exposition monologing just when you expected the epic throw down. However, when it comes, it is plot-twisty (though a bit obvious) and satisfying.
If you like Clive Barker's Weaveworld, any Neil Gaiman, Terry Prachett (my review of Hogfather) or of course Christopher Moore (my review of Lamb), you will love this book.