How Paul Atreides became “Johnny Big Balls of Dune.”
How Paul Atreides became “Johnny Big Balls of Dune.”
Bobby Dollar is an angel, but not very angelic. He doesn’t wear a white robe and halo and live on a cloud. He lives in California, carries a gun, drinks too much, and likes muscle cars.
But he’s a real angel, a servant of the Lord, helping to send recently departed souls on to their final reward — or punishment.
I’ve known about the series for a couple of years, but a recent interview with the author piqued my interest. Williams described how he was influenced by the noir detective novels and movies of the mid-20th century, and also by spy novels of the Cold War. The Bobby Dollar novels envision the eons-long conflict between Heaven and Hell as a kind of Cold War, with the adversaries sniping at each other in a restrained fashion, trying to gain an advantage without setting off Armageddon (literally in the case of the Bobby Dollar novels). Bobby Dollar is a low-level operative with only an inkling of the big picture. Although he’s an angel, he’s never talked to God. He doesn’t know anybody who’s talked to God. He’s just trying to do a job, and (as in a Cold War spy novel), often seems to have more in common with adversaries on his own level than with the high command of his own side.
There’s also a strong noir influence to the Bobby Dollar novels. Bobby is quick with his fists, his gun, and a wisecrack. He’s more likely to hit the bottle than he is to pray.
And there’s a woman — or should I say a dame — Casimira, the Countess of Cold Hands, a demon who Bobby thinks is fundamentally good. As a reader, I’m not so sure.
Bobby is an Advocate, a kind of heavenly lawyer, and when one of his clients’ souls goes missing, Bobby sets out to solve a mystery that runs him afoul of the highest powers in Heaven and Hell. He uncovers a conspiracy to upend the heavenly order. That’s the action in the first book of the series, The Dirty Streets of Heaven.
In Happy Hour in Hell, Bobby goes to Hell — literally — and gets a tour of the underworld, which exists on multiple levels, and contains whole cities of the damned and demons.
The theology of the Bobby Dollar stories is a sort of generic Judeo-Christian religion. Bobby doesn’t know why, and he doesn’t know whether things are different elsewhere — whether there’s a Muslim afterlife, a Buddhist afterlife, and so on. Bobby is pretty sure the rules have loosened up since previous centuries, and he’s our only guide to the afterlife. Like I said, he’s a low-level operative, and doesn’t know anything about the big picture, and neither does anybody he knows.
And yet the books do tackle one of the biggest questions of theology: If there is a God, and He is good, how can he permit suffering? In particular, eternal suffering? On multiple occasions in the stories, we see characters who are punished out of proportion to their sins. We see characters who are people who have literally become monsters, but who seem driven by mental illness and without free will. Bobby’s visit to the woods of Hell where suicides are punished is particularly haunting — surely, even if suicide is a grave sin (and I’m inclined to the belief that it is), a just God would not torment the souls of suicides for all eternity?
Those are some pretty heavy questions. Did I mention the guns? And the wisecracks?
One final point of the series that I find nifty: The novels take place in San Judas, a fictional California city that seems to occupy the location of real-life San Jose. The tourists assume San Judas is named for the guy who betrayed Jesus, but it’s really named for Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. San Judas is an amalgam of the real-life San Francisco Bay area. Various real-life and made-up Bay Area landmarks are compressed in closer proximity, into a single city.
The effect makes San Judas resemble Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. That’s partly my opinion and partly according to various things I’ve read and heard on the Internet. I can’t remember where — but start with this author interview and this comment on the author’s message boards.
The Bobby Dollar books are fast, enjoyable, thoughtful adventures, with plenty of action, humor, creative world-building and gruesome horrors. Bobby seems like he’d be a fun guy to hang around with — at least until the shooting starts and the monsters come up from Hell.
Nicola Griffith ponders how her straight historical novel Hild got nominated for the science fiction and fantasy Nebula Award.
Richard Russo is one of my favorite writers. He satisfies a quality I get from science fiction and fantasy, of living in an alien world. Russo’s alien worlds are contemporary small towns in upstate New York and Maine. Likewise, the Easy Rawlins novels let me live for a time in post World War II black Los Angeles.
I’ve added Hild to my Amazon wishlist.
Smithsoian’s Ron Rosenbaum sits down with the writer and chef.
Rosenbaum talks about Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential, one of the most inspiring books I’ve read, and captures much of what I found appealing about it:
Kitchen Confidential is one of the few books in recent American literature to capture the communal ecstasy of Work. American writers rarely write about work anymore. Not tech work, quant work, digital work, but real work, manual work, crew work, often skilled but sweaty.
Yes! For me, that was a big part of the appeal of Kitchen Confidential: Communal work, as part of something bigger than yourself, even if that something is just a restaurant serving mediocre, instantly-forgotten seafood to tourists on Cape Cod. I’m wistful about that. I’ve worked from a home office for about half my career — that’s isolated work.
Bourdain is passionate for the work itself. I get that sometimes on my job. Not often enough, but sometimes.
Cooking, [Bourdain] says, can “develop this glorious culture that values certain things. Firemen have that same sort of thing—there’s us and f–k everyone else. Cop culture, people who are doing difficult things who are used to being under-appreciated….You develop a unit pride that allows you to transcend the overwhelming likelihood that the mission is doomed, OK?”
Bourdain also talks about America’s growing food culture:
[T]he whole seismic food culture shift isn’t American superficiality but the New World learning what the Old World has known for centuries. “We’re just catching on,” he says. “We are changing societally, and our values are changing, so that we are becoming more like Italians and Chinese and Thais and Spaniards, where we actually think about what we’re eating, what we ate last night, and what we’re considering eating tomorrow. When I grew up in the ’60s, we’d go to see a movie, then we would go to a restaurant. And we would talk about the movie we just saw. Now, you go right to dinner and you talk about the dinner you had last week and the dinner you’re going to have next week, while you’re taking pictures of the dinner you’re having now. That’s a very Italian thing. A lot of the sort of hypocrisy and silliness and affectation of current American food culture is just fits and starts, awkwardly and foolishly growing into a place where a lot of older cultures have been for quite some time.”
World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters, is a sad and beautiful story about a good man trying to live a decent life a few days before the world is due to be destroyed. Literally destroyed. An asteroid is heading straight for the Earth, and the human race and other higher life are going to be wiped out in about a week.
The people of the Earth have known the asteroid is coming for two years, and have had that time to try to deal with the imminent death of everything. World of Trouble is the third and final book of a trilogy. The first two volumes, The Last Policeman, and Countdown City are among the best books I’ve read recently, and World of Trouble lives up to that standard.
Like the other two books of the series, World of Trouble is told in the first person by Hank Palace, a police detective from a small city in New Hampshire. Like the other two books, Palace in World of Trouble has a mystery to solve.
Palace is a natural-born detective and conscientious public servant. He’s articulate and fair. He’s rather humorless, but that’s not a flaw in a cop. He’s the introspective son of a couple of humanities professors, and that shows in his writing style and thought processes. He’s a likable protagonist to spend time with, and a true hero, even though he does bad things. Palace is a fundamentally decent and courageous person in a world going insane.
The first volume of the trilogy, The Last Policeman, takes place six months before the predicted end of the world. Everybody knows when the asteroid is predicted to hit — down to the minute — and where.
In the course of investigating the mysteries in the three books, Palace explores New Hampshire and travels on foot and bicycle to Ohio. The US government reverts briefly to a police state to keep order, and then evaporates. Local governments hang on longer, then they unravel as well. Civilization itself is coming apart, as the world rolls on knowing the precise minute it will be destroyed.
People react to threat of imminent destruction in all kinds of ways. Some lose themselves in drugs and orgies. Others commit murder. Some abandon their families to run off to Tahiti. Some steal. Others try to continue with normal life as best as they can, going to work and even sending kids to school. We see a Utopian commune at a university that will (if the dire predictions work out) never have a chance to fall apart, as Utopian communes inevitably do given time. Some members of that commune spend their nights and days watching movies. Others just read, eating in the library and relieving themselves into deskside containers so they don’t have to spend an unnecessary minute away from their books.
Palace is in the group of people trying to hang onto normal life. He’s an apprentice detective, but, if the world ends as predicted, he will never get a chance to master his trade. The criminals he apprehends will never be brought to justice. Soon enough, the US government disbands his police department and Palace is no longer a cop, but he’s still a detective.
And this is as far as I’m going to go without dropping big spoilers. More after the cut.