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Hatcher McCord is an evening news presenter who has found himself in Hell and is struggling to explain his bad fortune. He's not the only one to suffer this fate—in fact, he's surrounded by an outrageous cast of characters, including Humphrey Bogart, William Shakespeare, and almost all of the popes and most of the U.S. presidents. The question may be not who is in Hell but who isn't. McCord is living with Anne Boleyn in the afterlife but their happiness is, of course, constantly derailed by her obsession with Henry VIII (and the removal of her head at rather inopportune moments). One day McCord meets Dante's Beatrice, who believes there is a way out of Hell, and the next morning, during an exclusive on-camera interview with Satan, McCord realizes that Satan's omniscience, which he has always credited for the perfection of Hell's torments, may be a mirage—and Butler is off on a madcap romp about good, evil, free will, and the possibility of escape. Butler's depiction of Hell is original, intelligent, and fiercely comic, a book Dante might have celebrated.

240 pages, Hardcover

First published September 8, 2009

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About the author

Robert Olen Butler

89 books408 followers
“I’ll never stop believing it: Robert Olen Butler is the best living American writer, period.”
– Jeff Guinn, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Robert Olen Butler has published sixteen novels—The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, Countrymen of Bones, On Distant Ground, Wabash, The Deuce, They Whisper, The Deep Green Sea, Mr. Spaceman, Fair Warning, Hell, A Small Hotel, The Hot Country, The Star of Istanbul, The Empire of Night, Perfume River—and six volumes of short fiction—Tabloid Dreams, Had a Good Time, Severance, Intercourse, Weegee Stories, and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Butler has published a volume of his lectures on the creative process, From Where You Dream, edited with an introduction by Janet Burroway.

In 2013 he became the seventeenth recipient of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. He also won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction and has received two Pushcart Prizes. He has also received both a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. His stories have appeared widely in such publications as The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Zoetrope, The Paris Review, Granta, The Hudson Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and The Sewanee Review. They have been chosen for inclusion in four annual editions of The Best American Short Stories, eight annual editions of New Stories from the South, several other major annual anthologies, and numerous college literature textbooks from such publishers as Simon & Schuster, Norton, Viking, Little Brown & Co., Houghton Mifflin, Oxford University Press, Prentice Hall, and Bedford/St.Martin and most recently in The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford.

His works have been translated into twenty-one languages, including Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Polish, Japanese, Serbian, Farsi, Czech, Estonian, Greek, and most recently Chinese. He was also a charter recipient of the Tu Do Chinh Kien Award given by the Vietnam Veterans of America for “outstanding contributions to American culture by a Vietnam veteran.” Over the past two decades he has lectured in universities, appeared at conferences, and met with writers groups in 17 countries as a literary envoy for the U. S. State Department.

He is a Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor holding the Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing at Florida State University. Under the auspices of the FSU website, in the fall of 2001, he did something no other writer has ever done, before or since: he revealed his writing process in full, in real time, in a webcast that observed him in seventeen two-hour sessions write a literary short story from its first inspiration to its final polished form. He also gave a running commentary on his artistic choices and spent a half-hour in each episode answering the emailed questions of his live viewers. The whole series, under the title “Inside Creative Writing” is a very popular on YouTube, with its first two-hour episode passing 125,000 in the spring of 2016.

For more than a decade he was hired to write feature-length screenplays for New Regency, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney, Universal Pictures, Baldwin Entertainment Group (for Robert Redford), and two teleplays for HBO. Typical of Hollywood, none of these movies ever made it to the screen.

Reflecting his early training as an actor, he has also recorded the audio books for four of his works—A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Hell, A Small Hotel and Perfume River. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate degree from the State University of New York system. He lives in Florida, with his wife, the poet Kelly Lee Butler.

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5 stars
294 (18%)
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484 (29%)
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508 (31%)
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235 (14%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 272 reviews
Profile Image for Tim.
66 reviews57 followers
April 14, 2010
Someone once said that the problem with sensational journalism is not that it is not journalism, but rather that it is not sensational. Reading through this book, I thought of a new way of phrasing the idea: the problem with experimental novelists is not that they are not novelists, but that they are not experimental.

This could have been a truly imaginative piece of work. When I picked it up, I was looking forward to all the grossness, horror, and enslavement of Dante's Inferno, but updated with the hammer of our new modern sensibilities, wherein we don't shrink away from any subject, no matter how graphic. Also, I was expecting the cold chill that comes from watching a good horror movie, a chill which, I am convinced, comes from the idea of the self being erased. Fitting subjects for a modern reworking of hell, no?

True, there are people getting eaten with acid. But they reconstitute themselves afterward. There are people getting shot. They heal themselves afterward. There are jokes. For example, did you know that George W. Bush is really stupid? That Bill Clinton likes to have sex with loose women? And that Jerry Seinfeld tells lots of jokes about ordinary things? Ha ha! It is all so fucking inventive.

Being a modern writer with modern sensibilities, Mr. Butler cannot seem to imagine anything worse than getting hurt, getting embarrassed, or not being able to have sex. In other words, not getting what you want is hell.

Furthermore since, as Bob Dylan said in the excellent song "To Ramona," "you're better than no one and no one is better than you," everyone is in hell, from Moses to Mother Theresa. Mother Theresa is, I think, forced to be a cocktail waitress. Isn't that funny?

Mr. Butler, realizing at some point that he can't construct an entire book out of commonplace observations that everybody already knows, has filled in the space between these observations with a plot about a newscaster trying to discover a way out of hell. Of course, when he discovers this way out, it only turns out to be a gateway to some place (Heaven) where no one is trying to hurt you all the time.

Again, nothing really profound, as this subject matter would tend to make one expect. No reaching. The conclusion of the book has the character of being drawn out of a hat: it is random and just strange enough to make you think you've missed something very important within all the text.

Having perhaps read my hundredth book by a modern writer that I didn't understand, I am beginning to lose a little of my patience with these endings that are designed to make you believe that there is something deep in the book that you've missed. Still, I will state my ever-recurring caveat: this book may well have interesting things in it, and I may be a poor enough reader not to understand those things.

Having said that, I can't help but wonder if this ending business (wherein the ending is strange enough to attempt to inform the middle and beginning of the text you've already read) hasn't just become part of every modern writer's toolbox. In my view, the master of this technique was Hemingway, and it always worked well for him because his writing style deliberately left so many of the big issues out.

Incidentally, I think Hemingway stole the technique from Chekhov, who seems to use it again and again ad nauseum in his many tedious stories about boring people in the Russian countryside. Thanks, Chekhov, for inventing modern literature!

Seriously, though, it occurs to me that this technique is actually older than Chekhov, much older. The last chapter of The Iliad is very beautifully devoted to the funeral of Hector, when all along you thought the book was supposed to be about Achilles and his gang. In fact, in my first year of college I was so moved by the end of the Iliad that I was forced to cut the last line out of my copy and tape it to my door: "Such was their burial of Hector, breaker of horses."

The difference, of course, is that what Homer does is to inform us of another level running like bedrock beneath a story already chock full of levels, while Chekhov informs us that, though we thought we had been reading about nothing, in fact we have been reading something very deep and profound and we are just to stupid to understand it. It is clear to me, anyway, who is the better writer.

Anyway, the ending to Mr. Butler's novel has this kind of feel. It seems to inform the work, though in what way, I do not know, and I certainly don't feel driven by the originality of the work to sit down and try to dig it out. If, in fact, it is there.
Profile Image for Ryan Hibbett.
30 reviews1 follower
April 18, 2012
I'm only giving it 2 stars for the idea and themes. Really, it deserves 1 for being written so poorly. This guy won a Pulitzer Prize? I'm surprised he has even made as a writer. Let me give you a tip, Mr. Butler: never write in the passive voice! "He is thinking" should never be written. Every other page had something written in the passive voice and it drove me nuts. It was hard to concentrate. I also get what he's trying to do with the thought process being run-on sentences, but when it goes on for 2 pages it's almost impossible to read. He couldn't choose between calling him Bogey or Bogart. After a while it became repetitious and annoying to hear of all the people in Hell. I get it, everyone put themselves in Hell. Most people happen to be there because they are self-loathing or feel like they don't belong in Heaven. I thought it was interesting to have Satan not able to hear his thoughts, but once that was established it was never used well. Too bad, this idea could have been great in capable hands.
Profile Image for Efe Sarıtunalı.
70 reviews1 follower
August 5, 2019
Bayıldım. Eğlenceli, yaratıcı ve düşündürücü. En sevdiğim yazarlardan biri olan Chuck Palahnuik'in en sevdiğim eserine, Lanetli Üçlemesi'ne benziyor. Zaten yazarın tarzındaki Palahnuik tadını hissetmemek mümkün değil.
Profile Image for Marlena.
9 reviews2 followers
April 17, 2013
If Hell were a 79¢ microwavable burrito it would come in the green wrapper and it's flavor would be mild.

I bought this book when it first came out, having excited myself over the synopsis. A snarky, adult, pop-culture referencing trip through Hell? That's so up my alley. I had started it immediately but according to the old receipt-turned-bookmark I only made it to page 40. What had happened?

Probably not by coincidence, it was around page 40 on the reread that I realized why I dropped Hell the first time.

I don't care about any of the characters. And I don't mean 'care' as in "have strong emotion for". I mean care as in "give at least half a shit about". At least half!

The constant name-dropping of a known persons (dead or just fictionally dead) was fun at first. It really was! George W. Bush? Funny! Albert Speer? A well used reference! Snoop Dogg? Eh, this is getting embarrassing. It became so tiring. Who's Hatcher McCord gonna walk by next?? The author photo on the back flap of the dust jacket shows Butler's floating, disembodied head lurking near a computer screen. I can only imagine that after the camera clicked, Butler immediately reopened Wikipedia in a new tab, repeatedly hit Random Page, and thought aloud "Alright, who else can I squeeze into this bitch?"

I spent most of the book prepared to give it a very generous three stars, until the unreadable, unforgivable departure into the succubus story. And I say unreadable not only because it was shit (and it was), but because I could not harness my eyeballs to stop rolling into oblivion, which makes it hard keep one's place on the page. This abysmal hackitude knocked the whole novel back to a well-deserved if only theoretical zero stars (c'mon Goodreads, some things really are that bad!)

Sadly, from this point the book never really recovers. Hell's schtick just gets older and more tiresome and you just want it to be over. The moralizing at the end felt empty and unlearned, being handed to you rather than extrapolated from the story.

...But, I did laugh. Even out loud sometimes! And Butler does have a talent for dialogue, which was clever without beating you over the head about how clever it was being. Kudos, I guess.

It was a strange feeling, this book. When I put it down, after a while I would think about how much I wanted to keep reading. But then, every time I picked it back up I remembered why I had put it down in the first place.

Which is, perhaps, a lot like eating a microwavable burrito.
Profile Image for Amy Wilder.
200 reviews63 followers
December 22, 2009
New Yorker capsule review got my attention. The premise alone is great - a newscaster in hell does a series of celebrity interviews - just one question: "Why Do You Think You're Here?"
Perversely profound, though we are lured into the novel at the prospect of being a voyeur of someone else's eternal damnation, Butler leads the reader quickly to contemplate the source of all suffering.

In the opening scene Hatcher McCord, the narrator and anchorman of the Evening News from Hell, describes a television commercial in hell which shows to each individual some of his most treasured possessions - for Hatcher it's a complete series of some toy he owned as a child - but if you call the number on the screen, you are forced to relive a litany of miserable moments from your real childhood. Immediately, I felt called into hell myself. Those tortured moments when you realize you can't go back to childhood because now you know that it wasn't even that great.

In additional to delivering humorously some pretty profound meditations on life, suffering and human nature, Butler has a lot of fun with language - playing with different genres as Hatcher visits denizens from different eras. Bush, Hitler, J. Edgar Hoover, Clinton, Henry VIII, Humphrey Bogart - he does them all with aplomb.

He also lets us enjoy peeking at the suffering of many people we can all feel superior to - like members of the paparazzi who are forced to wear hideous, ill-fitting women's bathing-suits. These are like treats he hands out along the way to keep the mood light - and it works - is this how Dante's Inferno read to contemporaries, I wonder? If so, it is well-named the Divine Comedy.

The plot isn't exactly a page-turner - but Hatcher roams far enough and muses on enough topics as he goes that it is also never boring. And there is a plot and the characters have arcs and you get a sense of resolution - although not in the way you might imagine. Not with trumpets from heaven.

Consequently I never felt that urgency to get through a chapter to see what happens (after all - you pretty much know eternal suffering is what's most likely to happen) but I never felt like I wanted to put it down, either. To call it a light-hearted romp through the bowels of hell contained within the human psyche would not be entirely wrong.
346 reviews16 followers
March 5, 2010
Hell by Robert Olen Butler (pp. 232)

Hands down, one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. A surreal comedy set literally in Hell with deceased fictional journalist, Hatcher McCord as our tortured, philosophical tour guide who happens to be the current anchor for Evening Nightly News of Hell.

Based on Dante’s Inferno with pieces of Jean Paul Satre, Waiting for Godot, Picasso at Lapin Agile, Dennis Miller, CNN, Entertainment Weekly and your high school history books all beautifully merged into a masterful tale that can’t begin to be described without reading it for yourself. While a short in the number of pages, Butler is able to take one page and paint images so rich, colorful, comedic, thought provoking and entertaining that you think you’ve covered 20 pages, but you’re still working on turning the page.

If all the Classics you’ve read grew up and got cool and relevant again, this is the book they’d want to be. Butler explores some of the great philosophic questions posed by the concept of Heaven and Hell. Why am I here? Do I deserve to be here? Are we all in hell? Can I redeem myself? Is hell so bad?

Juggling a cast of characters including most of the recent presidents, famous newscasters, Hoover, Elvis, the lesser characters of the Bible, musicians, actors and rock stars, Butler explores all the classic Hell themes as Hatcher McCord attempts to best Satan and escape Hell.

There are a list of people who I would recommend this book to all for different reasons and the random tasty morsels that pop up in the book. This is truly a well-executed and original take on a classic theme. Any fan of great writing should pick this up regardless of their interest in the subject matter.
Profile Image for Katie Followell.
334 reviews10 followers
March 12, 2021
It's weird.

There's a lot I disliked about this book. I sometimes felt like sections were disconnected or random. I thought inner dialogue went on way longer than it should. I skimmed pages at a time.

But I did really like the premise and the imagination behind this story. It was fun to picture this weird, quirky hell.
Profile Image for Jordan.
329 reviews8 followers
September 10, 2014
First off, thanks to the good people at ARCycling and to Mariela O. for getting me this book. Free books are always a cause for thanks, regardless of what I end up thinking of the book itself. In this case....well, my reaction was just incredibly ambivalent. Robert Olen Butler is apparently a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, but at least in this case I didn't see what all the fuss was about. There are a few laughs throughout this work of satire, but on the whole its cynical view of human nature just depressed me. In fact, the back text "Tweets from Hell" which appeared nowhere in the actual novel was the funniest part, I thought.

Who's in Hell? It seems like pretty darn near everyone, from Bill Clinton to Mother Theresa, and everyone wants to know why they ended up there. Hatcher McCord, as Satan's top newscaster, has the job of interviewing all these wonderful folks and asking them that one simple question: "Why are you here?" But even though he works directly for the devil, Hell is no picnic--there's the occasional rain of sulfuric acid to deal with, for example, or the unpredictable day/night cycle. There's the couple living next door, eternally confined to their La-Z-Boys and bickering at each other loudly when anyone walks by. The one bright spot in McCord's dismal reality is his girlfriend, Anne Boleyn, and even there everything is far from rosy. She's fixated on her ex-husband, Henry XIII, for one thing. For another, it seems physically impossible to have satisfying sex in Hell....though that doesn't stop anybody from trying. What is Hell like? Oddly enough, it's a lot like everyday life, just without the good bits and with a lot more chaos and a higher temperature. Apparently Dante took quite a few dramatic liberties after his escape. You spend your time doing things much like you did in life, only without the hope of things turning out alright. J. Edgar Hoover runs the Devil's surveillance service. Humphrey Bogart spends most of his time in the guise of one or another of his characters, always looking for Lauren Bacall. McCord gets to give the evening news, but the teleprompter is always trying to trip him up. One day, however, everything changes. McCord discovers that his private thoughts are his own and not, as everyone assumes, being monitored by the Diabolical One. Furthermore, there may be a way out of Hell....if only he can find it.

My reaction? Decidedly "meh," unfortunately. I had high hopes for the comedy value here, apparently too high as it turned out. There were some laughs, sure, but quite a few of them were uncomfortable ones. I wasn't bothered by the horrid theology--that was expected. What bothered me far more was the cynicism inherent in the tale. Heaven turns out to be a place of contented numbness, much like any anti-depressant based dystopia. The way out of Hell appears to be simply the act of trying to escape. And it doesn't seem that anyone, not one person, made the cut and escaped being consigned to Hell's flames. There are digs handed out at public figures left and right, historical and contemporary, significant and not so much. Those, at times, were humorous. Not enough so to salvage this book for me, but at least a little bit. I got the impression the author had some grand truth (or at least some grand assertion) that he wanted to reveal about human nature, but never quite got the curtain to come unhooked.

CONTENT: R-rated language. Explicit sexual content, typically strange and grotesque enough not to be arousing. Strong violence. Occult content....well, the majority of the book is literally set in Hell, so....
Profile Image for Geo.
32 reviews3 followers
May 24, 2011
I'll summarize. This was an excellent book. The premise is awesome. I don't want to share too much to avoid spoilers.

The basic idea is that the main character is a journalist who has died and gone to hell, and is now a Evening News in Hell anchorman. Oh yeah, and he's co-habitating with Anne Boleyn. Right, the Henry the 8th Anne Boleyn. The author has cooked up some seriously demented "punishments" for the various denizens. You may consider this a modernized Dante's Inferno if you wish, but that wouldn't be doing this justice.

There are some odd skips in perspective that take some getting used to. The author puts you into the mind of other characters the main character meets so you can see the mental process they are going through that defines their torment. This happens often, is accompanied by italicized text, and is outside the flow of the main plot, though it certainly lends more fuel to the plot line.

It is also, and perhaps even mainly, a social commentary. Many modern people are down there (perhaps indicating this is set somewhere in the near future), and the authors torments on them are clear indication of his thoughts on them. This book is probably not on the Catholic church's "recommended reading" list, as, well... as you might expect with anything that lends detail to what the Church considers itself the authority on, there are definitely some views expressed here that would not be acceptable to them. Not to mention some of the religious figures from history (and modern times) that are down there as well. At least he doesn't pick on them specifically. All the major religions are well represented.

The there are certainly political views expressed (based on the treatment of some of the world's politicians), and though I would consider the author's general views as liberal and left-leaning, enjoying this book does not require you to lean any particular way politically. You will find plenty of things to laugh at even if they weren't all the things I found.

Yes, it is generally a comedy, but I do think the social commentary is quiet serious, and by the end of the book, you will find yourself thinking more and laughing perhaps a bit less. The balance is brilliant, and definitely a recommended read from my perspective.
Profile Image for David.
188 reviews21 followers
January 18, 2010
If you look at most of what I enjoy reading, you’ll understand that every now and then I need a dose of comedy, and this ingenious satiric three ring circus fit the bill well. As with Dante’s Inferno, there’s precious little plot: this one’s mostly about the sightseeing, and much of the entertainment of this book actually stems from the seemingly endless variety and ingenuity of such special punishments, which make Dante look like an amateur. William Randolph Hearst blogs without recourse to the CAPS LOCK, while Shakespeare’s hard drive crashes; Martha Stewart demonstrates how to cook one’s own organs; Dick Cheney grouses Beelzabub over their incompetent bosses, and J. Edgar Hoover goes on TV in drag. Yes, you meet people who haven’t died yet here. George W. Bush is here, perplexed and convinced that he’s actually in Heaven. Who else is in Hell? Hell, who isn’t? So many people show up, some who aren’t even quite dead yet above ground, and one of the book’s main pastimes is celebrity spotting. Was that Christopher Hitchens in a clinch with Mother Theresa? Is that Robert Redford? Are those the Bee Gees? Our hero is Hatcher McCord, an anchorman in life and now one in Hell, all devised as a part of his own special punishment. Other aspects of it include bruising his hip every day in the same place on the same table, and sex that ranges from unsatisfying to ghastly with his girlfriend, the occasionally re-capitated Anne Boleyn. Hatcher’s biggest hit is the “Why Do You Think You’re Here?” show, but his secret talent is a mind that Satan can’t quite control, all of which leads him to enlist Judas Iscariot in a escape attempt. But as I said, plot is beside the point. Hey, was that Christopher Hitchens necking with Mother Theresa, as Celine Dion sings that Titanic song over, and over, and over…? One joke, but he does tell it pretty darned well. I'm thinking this title will be pretty much meaningless in about 10 or 15 years, though.
Profile Image for Mary Overton.
Author 1 book41 followers
July 31, 2014
Butler is funny as Hell while asking the Big Serious Questions. The more familiar you are with Dante, the better this novel. I knew right away, on page 2, I was going to like the book when one of the first denizens introduced was "George Clemens, inventor of the electric hand dryer for public restrooms."

Actually, everyone seems to be there, all the best people. The protagonist, Hatcher McCord, died a big-shot TV news anchor and now headlines "The Evening News from Hell." He lives with Anne Boleyn, beheaded queen of Henry VIII. The couple keep trying to, as she says, "'play at the beast with two backs.'"
"'Have you been hanging around with Shakespeare again?'" the protagonist asks jealously.
"'He's insufferable,' Anne says.
"'You sound more and more like him.'
"'He complains all the time.... He weeps for quill and ink.'
"'His hard drive keeps crashing and he loses his plays.'
"'We all have to keep up.'" (17)

In the neighborhood where "the poets and playwrights and fiction writers dwell" the bookstores carry nothing but unsold remainders and go out of business at sundown. Except for Sylvia Beach's famous Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, where the shelves are packed. "'Every volume I have,'" she points with despair. "'Reader's Digest Condensed Books. It's all I can get.' Sylvia begins to weep softly. 'Is it because of Adrienne, do you suppose? That I'm here, with these?'"
Another torment Sylvia suffers is that writers never visit her store. "'I only get book reviewers. They come in and sit around, and they all seem unaware of who or where they are. I don't know them. They clearly read too fast and in the wrong frame of mind. They miss so much. Perhaps that's why they're here.'" (86)
Profile Image for Jeff Rowe.
132 reviews
October 23, 2013
You know the old joke: if you go to hell then you'll be so busy shaking hands with all your friends that you won't have time to worry? That pretty much sums up this story. But of course being dead in hell in this story is probably just a metaphor for life as we know it. This slim book was surprisingly difficult to get through. All the famous denizens: J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, Anne Boleyn, etc., were cliches of the popular versions of these characters. Snore. Their individual tortures were supposed to be clever I suppose, but they didn't really seem that creative. The whole succubus passage was terrible, and had little to do with the rest of the story. The final nail in the coffin is that you see the ending coming several pages before it's revealed. Lame.
Profile Image for Audrey.
Author 13 books111 followers
October 2, 2013
I'm so happy to have discovered Robert Olen Butler. I'm not sure what made me pick up this book (the title? the cover illustration?). Butler takes readers on an enjoyable literary romp through Hell with his protagonist, a TV anchorman who has found himself in that place below and sets out to find out why he is there--along with all manner of other famous and not-so-famous people. But there's a deeper message about humanity that's both satisfying and poignant. I'll be picking up more of Butler's books.
33 reviews
November 2, 2009
Don't be turned off by the number of lower reviews of this book. Most people don't like it cause its "depressing." I have to say that most literature is depressing and if you don't want to read about reality stick to reading Romance novels are the stuff that scruffs by these days as "bestsellers." This novel is inventive and fascinating. A quick read and definitely one of the best books I've read in a long time. This is number 75 for the year so that should say something.
Profile Image for Meredith.
120 reviews13 followers
March 10, 2011
holy crap this was terrible

note to literary world: Pulitzer winners still need editors to tell them when their work sucks balls. note to Pulitzer winners: don't waste our time (or, hell, your own time), not to mention the bajillions of trees it took to print the book, with self-indulgent, idiotic work like this. note to R.O.B.: your sense of humor is downright embarrassing, yo

(had to read this for class)
Profile Image for Carole B.
403 reviews9 followers
March 14, 2019
This is the first Butler novel I've read, and I'm impressed. His take on hell was lively and thoroughly imagined, and filled with the one-off satiric comments that I love. His characters were well-drawn, and I was particularly impressed with the independence he gave to his female characters. The contemporary comments have already made this book a snapshot of its time, but its willingness to embrace this time-sensitive satire makes it more valuable.
Profile Image for Deborah.
77 reviews
November 23, 2011
I had some issues with this book at first, mainly because its themes were a bit heavy given the personal hell I was going through. But it picks up very well once it gets past the initial fascination with itself and the idea of all these famous people in hell. I loved the ending and found it unexpected and remarkably sweet.
Profile Image for Aaron.
535 reviews15 followers
July 12, 2013
Not impressed. As a matter of fact, several times throughout the book, I was reminded of the title whenever I considered how many pages were left. I only stuck with it because Mr. Butler is a Pulitzer Prize winner (although, not by the standards of this book, in my opinion) and the premise is interesting, just not well done. Anyway, I can't recommend it at all as I barely finished it myself.
Profile Image for Trudi.
615 reviews1,418 followers
December 26, 2009
Not what I was expecting AT ALL. It had its moments in the first 50 pages, then it just went downhill for me after that. I skimmed and jumped around and was never genuinely engaged. I guess I just missed the point.
Profile Image for Morgan.
76 reviews
January 7, 2010
Lives up to the intriguing premise. I found the novel to be strangely satisfying despite the fact that all of the characters are languishing in Hell. Would make a nice companion read to Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman.
Profile Image for Amanda.
275 reviews170 followers
November 24, 2014
I loved this..It was funny and an altogether great read
Profile Image for Fred.
59 reviews1 follower
August 11, 2014
Almost 5 stars. Great book, creatively set in a vivid underworld, with a great list of famous (infamous?) cameos. Read with a search engine nearby, looking up unfamiliar names is almost a must.
Profile Image for Kate.
141 reviews14 followers
April 3, 2020
I liked a lot about this book, but I think there was more that I didn’t like. A lot of the jokes were cheesy and overdone, yeah. It was gory in a really gross way too, which was probably supposed to add to the humor but I really disliked reading it.

I think Butler tried to tackle too many big themes at once, so a lot of plotlines and beginnings felt unresolved at the end. As far as I could tell, some of the themes he touched on were family and whether we’re destined to end up in a certain place because of where we came from, the discomfort and fantasy associated with sex, the idea that everyone is equal/equally bad or “sinful”, living in the present instead of wishing it away for a perfect future that never comes, the truth that we all secretly crave the drama and certainty of pain, the unexpected value of unhappiness and “bad” sensations and experiences, the value of human connection vs personal success, and sorta an anti-religion think for yourself thing?
There was just no way he could thoroughly cover all of that in a 200 page novel. Maybe it would’ve worked better if he chose to touch on less of those topics.

The description of Heaven was underwhelming and lackluster. But maybe that was the point, since Hatcher was so underwhelmed with it. I understand that his big conclusion was that sharing in suffering is a kind of bliss, that there’s no true happiness alone, and maybe that unpleasant experiences are necessary in order to ever feel happiness or a sense of reward. But did it also mean that there is no true Heaven? That what we’re all dreaming of is shallow and materialistic and selfish? Heaven is only full of starbucks and mansions and department stores and fancy cars? If that was the point, I don’t think it made a lot of sense because Hatcher desired personal fulfillment in his career and relationships and conquering his own mind, not just mild meaningless lack of discontent. So the reality of Heaven isn’t a big dramatic reveal of how wrong he was about what he wanted, it just reveals that Heaven isn’t as fun as it sounds and that whoever made it set it up in a very specific way that wouldn’t actually make everyone happy. But I liked the part about how he couldn’t remember anyone in Heaven. A nod to the fact that to be truly happy you would lose so much of your identity, knowledge, and independence (decision-making ability.)

I especially liked the parts referencing (disproving lol) religious ideology, and I did think it was funny viewing this through the world of hell and satan instead of the usual.
“If the He or She or It is listening in, you are bent, bullied, persuaded, muddled, and intimidated into certain feelings, and you don’t have a clue whether they’re actually yours or not.”

“He should still have forgiven this body of mine with its terrible weakness, for His Father created my body this way and if His Father could not resist creating it this, how could I resist thus living in it?”

Also some beautiful prose, yeah sometimes the run ons were hard to understand but I liked that contrast with the modern, snippy language making up
most of the book.
“and she wonders at how that excitement is like the excitement of seeing a beautiful snake suddenly among the flowers, crimson and black, and its beauty is made vivid by the poison you think is in its fangs and you want to touch it and it coils for you and its round-tipped little head rises and swoops for you and then it bites and you go quite numb and you lose all the excitement, and then you stop and ask yourself why you shouldn’t be the one who bites.”

Also why is Hatcher apparently the only one in this universe who is able to get to Heaven, especially when what he did is relatively simple? All he did was recognize and assert the independence of his mind and wander into a Burger shop.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Richard.
607 reviews15 followers
June 30, 2020
I have no clue how this book got onto my reading list. I think I’m glad it got there but, as often with satires, it is sometimes hard to be sure. Julien du Casse (1682 – 1715) was a French arms dealer whose last words are reported to be, “May the hell you find be the fruit of your carelessness.” This quote came to mind during my reading of In Hell.

Robert Olen Butler’s protagonist is Hatcher McCord, an famous evening news anchorman whose job now is to present hell’s evening news program. His is a captive audience. Hatcher’s main assignment is to interview people in hell and film them answering his one and only question, “why are you here?”

As in turns out, just about everyone is in hell. Not just those you might expect such as Anne Boleyn and Dick Nixon and Judas Iscariot but also Mother Theresa and almost of the popes and Presidents. Hatcher interviews many of them, including Satan himself, always posing the same question “why are you here.” As you read along you will find yourself wondering if I end up in hell will I know the answer to this question.

Using his “reporter’s nose”, Hatcher comes upon information that makes him think there is a way out of hell. The book shifts to his trying to track down more information and to plan his escape. Figuring it might improve his chances of escaping hell, Hatcher decides to track down his three former wives to say he is sorry. Obviously this does not go well but he does gain some insight as to why he, himself, is in hell.

This book contains a lot of dark humor about hell, various famous and infamous people, religious leaders, and philosophies of heaven and hell. You may laugh, you may be offended, and you may find pieces too close to home. I’m pretty sure that you will find Butler’s writing excellent and his presentation of hell unlike those of any others.

Will Hatcher find out why he is in hell? Will he escape? Will he or Satan has the last laugh? There is only one way to find out - by tuning in to the Evening News from Hell.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
214 reviews4 followers
September 9, 2017
One of the members of my book club suggested we read Hell. In many ways, it sounded like an excellent companion to our previous book, A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore. I had expected that, in spite of the dark subject matter, I would see much of the same humor and quirkiness that defines Moore's writing. Based on the back cover and summary, this book sounds more like a comedy. However, I found that it didn't deliver on that at all.

Hatcher McCord presents the evening (or is it the evening? Time passes so strangely in hell) news in Hell. Although he delivers other types of broadcasts, his main feature is the "Why do you think you're here?" question that he asks to newcomers or famous figures.

This had the potential to be a more amusing book than it was - after all, according to Butler, everyone is in Hell. Literally everyone. He name-drops famous historical figures left and right, most of which I knew but some of which I didn't. (History was never my strongest subject. Perhaps if it were, I'd have enjoyed this more? I don't think so.) In Hell, Hatcher is seeing Anne Boelyn, although he was not alive at the same time as she.

Obviously, Hell is meant to be a dark place of suffering, but I found that Butler's writing was unnecessarily gross. I think my main issue was that I could see he was trying to be funny sometimes, that some of the pain was meant to have comedic value. But I didn't feel like it succeeded.

Further, I didn't enjoy when Hatcher (and a number of other characters) got wrapped up in their own thoughts and Butler's writing started to become one long run-on sentence because their thoughts were just racing that much because these sentences were exhausting and hard to wrap your own head around as a reader.

Points for the concept, I suppose, but I didn't care for the execution.
Profile Image for Doctor Moss.
476 reviews18 followers
April 9, 2018
This is a good book. It's rare -- a provocative book that raises serious questions but is very entertaining, and even a fast read.

Robert Olen Butler won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. He's an excellent writer who writes almost breezily about serious subjects. Here the subject is self-absorption, conscience, guilt, and redemption. The lead character is Hatcher McCord, anchorman for the Evening News from Hell. If that sounds odd, it's representative of how Butler treats life in Hell. It's not just pools of molten sulfur (although it sometimes is) so much as a depressing version of ordinary life, with seemingly everyone who ever lived on Earth gathered to suffer together. At one point, Hatcher and one of his ex-wives sit reflecting on their lives together on Earth and in Hell:

Hatcher thinks: We only hurt each other. "Why are we here?" he says, softly.
"We were always here," she says.

That is the question that Hatcher poses to his on-air interview subjects, including J. Edgar Hoover, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, and even Satan himself -- "Why do you think you're here?" Each, with the exception of Satan, answers with some account of what they have done to deserve being in Hell. But another way to take the question, especially given how much Hell resembles ordinary life, is, "What is my purpose in Hell?" or "What am I here in Hell to do?" That would seem an especially poignant question, given that you will be there forever.

Hatcher is there to escape. Everyone wants to escape from Hell. And Hatcher comes to believe that escape is possible.

The question is what escape would mean. Everyone is in Hell, suffering all together. Where else is there to go? Who would be there? What would Heaven be?
Profile Image for Lucie Jones.
21 reviews1 follower
July 12, 2019
This book is one of the weirdest books I've ever read. I hated the first half of it so completely that I wanted to stop, but it won a Pulitzer, so I couldn't bring myself to stop. And I'm glad I didn't.

This is such a bizarre and wonderfully crafted story, so excellently written. It's hard to get a grasp on, at first- I thought it was like Thomas Pynchon on crack. You speed through the story, jumping from place to place, jumping into other peoples minds, the line blurring between metaphorical imagery and reality. At first, I had a hard time understanding what was literal, as our protagonist, Hatcher, seems to flit between locations in a heartbeat, from the news studio to his apartment, to Satan's mansion in the mountains, the Judas's automat. Every page seems to introduce new people and I couldn't tell who were important characters, and who we were merely peeking in on for a page.

Once you get into the swing of things (for me, around the time Hatcher interviews Satan and realises that perhaps there is privacy of mind in Hell), things get a lot easier. Hatcher finds his previous wives and apologises, finds Henry for Anne, plans with Judas for the Harrowing. The first third of the book sets it up as though it's going to be an investigative mystery (also very Pynchon)- how will he find Henry? What is the real extent of Satan's powers?- but thankfully, the story speeds on and unfolds without sticking to this simple idea.

By the midway point I was thoroughly invested and horrified- if you believe in Hell, this won't be fun for you.

And the ending- wow. Best ending of a book I've read in years.

Truly, Hell is other people. Haha.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Deniz.
149 reviews
April 10, 2019
Things I liked:

1)The humor. I honestly laughed out loud a couple of times while I was reading this. The situations the characters were put in and the tortures they had to go through were at times hilarious. The conversations between the characters were at time so absurd, I was cackling.

2)The writing style. It fit the premise so well. From the conversations to the inner monologue of the characters, everything was exquisite. Also so creative, amazingly creative.

3)The questions it asked. Hatcher was trying to find the reason why he's in hell. And on his journey you meet other people and it truly is a nice mirror to the human condition. The ending was marvelous.

What I disliked:

1)It was hard to read at times. The feeling of hopelessness weighed me down so much. Characters would die, only to get resurrected, they would be trampled, they would be caught in the acid rain. It was hard to read for me, personally.

2)Sometimes, it did get nonsensical. I didn't always mind, it's hell after all, but I had to read some scenes a second time to get what was going on.
Profile Image for RS Rook.
409 reviews9 followers
July 9, 2022
I'm glad I read this after finishing Sartre's Being and Nothingness, because I think I can see what Butler was trying to get at. It's kind of a response to No Exit, actually. This concept had the potential to be interesting but it gets bogged down in the extremely lazy reference humor that was popular in the early aughts. It wasn't especially funny then, and is even less so now.

The book is at its best when it is delving into the personal and sincere, but it never quite goes deep enough, perhaps because it is also trying to be funny. The comedic aspect undermines the philophical message rather than enhancing it, rendering the conclusions drawn by the book to be shallow and trite, much like the underdeveloped characters themselves.

Honestly wouldn't recommend this book to anyone. Just watch Bojack Horseman. That show does a lot of what this book is trying to do, but monumentally better.
Profile Image for Christopher.
188 reviews
December 10, 2020
I was a little disappointed by Hell. I found it to be a reader-friendly Inferno where we are not just witnesses of the suffering damned, but participants in a plot to escape Hell. Like Dante, Olen Butler has populated his Hell according to convention and his own biases. There is great comedy throughout, enough tragedy, and a level of general intrigue that complements the main point of tension, Hatcher McCord’s plan to find the back door to Hell. It's important to note that Olen Butler does a nice job of avoiding redundancy. Suffering is ubiquitous and yet unique to each individual in peculiar (and often humorous) ways. Still, the book overall, save the slim plot line pulling us through, is not all that interesting beyond superficial intrigue, a curiosity to see what's next, but not really caring one way or another.
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