A Dirty Job: …but someone’s got to do it, right?

A Dirty Job by Christopher MooreA Dirty Job by Christopher MooreA Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

For a long time, I’ve been fascinated the ways in which humans personify the concept of Death — a hooded and black-robed spectral reaper, a suave and irresistible man, a rider on horseback who visited the houses of the soon to be deceased, and many others. In the case of A Dirty Job (2006), Christopher Moore presents a nervous and twitchy Beta Male named Charlie Asher who operates a secondhand-items shop in San Francisco.

Charlie had what he thought was a decent life: he and his wife Rachel just had their first baby, the shop is doing well, and he’s got a great relationship with his sister Jane. But then people he comes into contact with start dying right before his eyes, strangers are bringing him objects that glow bright red, and angry voices hiss threats at him from sewer grates. Turns out there’s a secret society-of-sorts of people like Charlie, who facilitate a person’s passage from life to death, and there are very specific rules and codes of conduct which must be followed in order for reality to click along as it’s supposed to. When those codes of conduct are violated — by Charlie, by his employees, by some well-meaning outsiders — it opens the door for San Francisco to get a whole lot weirder. (I’ve never been to San Francisco, but it’s where Moore calls home, and he writes about the city with familiarity and love, even for districts like the infamous Tenderloin.)

Charlie is a bit of a mess, generally, though his new role as Death allows him to stretch his personality out a little and find a level of self-acceptance that previously wasn’t available. Charlie’s daughter, Sophie, is more adorable than I expected, especially when she’s leading humongous hellhounds around by the ears. His employee Lily is interesting in various ways, and since A Dirty Job spans the course of about six years, I appreciated the chance to get to see Lily’s goals and outlook change as she matures from a Goth-obsessed teenager to a culinary school student. As secondary characters go, Lily, Jane, and Sophie are all reasonably well-developed, and provide interest and conflict to Charlie’s story.

Sequel

Even if you’ve never read any of Moore’s other works, A Dirty Job is still an entertaining read, and the supporting characters that come in and out of Charlie’s life will still be accessible. But if you’ve read Coyote Blue, for example, you’ll recognize a certain green-suited man at his first appearance. If you’re familiar with Bloodsucking Fiends, you’ll instantly know the name of the mysterious drop-dead gorgeous redhead who brings an item to Charlie’s shop, and you’ll know why her appearance brings Inspector Alphonse Rivera and his partner, Nick Cavuto, to Charlie’s doorstep. And of course there’s The Emperor of San Francisco and his loyal canine soldiers, Bummer and Lazarus. The Emperor is the single constant thread running through all of Moore’s San Francisco novels, and his daily struggles and quiet dignity always affect me deeply.

Moore’s trademark is his humor, which sometimes slips from silly to outright sophomoric; your enjoyment of A Dirty Job will depend on your tolerance for gross-outs of every shape and kind, sex jokes, penis jokes, and more sex jokes. What keeps his books balanced is his insight and empathy for the human condition; in this case, there are two scenes in which cherished people are on their deathbeds, and these moments are written with such care and respect not only for the unenviable position of saying goodbye to a loved one, but also for the person departing their mortal coil. The Emperor himself is a mentally disturbed homeless man, who Moore as the author and every one of his characters treat with respect and gratitude for his assistance and companionship.

Death and dying are scary concepts, so it’s only natural that Moore brings his comedic sensibilities just past the tipping point of what most people would consider reasonable. It’s a tough balance, and it doesn’t always work, but I can’t fault him for trying. I was also frustrated by the over-reliance on characters hiding information from one another in order to draw out the plot and create additional conflict, but that’s a longtime pet peeve of mine, and other readers may not find this aspect tiresome in the least.

A Dirty Job contains lots of surprises, all manner of otherworldly creatures great and small, and a trip to the Underworld directly inspired by the myth of Orpheus, and ends in a way that points directly at a sequel: Secondhand Souls, published in 2015 and sitting on my bookshelf, waiting patiently to be read. Moore’s books never fail to make me laugh, and I always recommend his work to anyone who needs a good dose of silly in their lives.

Published in 2006. Charlie Asher is a pretty normal guy with a normal life, married to a bright and pretty woman who actually loves him for his normalcy. They’re even about to have their first child. Yes, Charlie’s doing okay—until people start dropping dead around him, and everywhere he goes a dark presence whispers to him from under the streets. Charlie Asher, it seems, has been recruited for a new position: as Death. It’s a dirty job. But, hey! Somebody’s gotta do it.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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2 comments

  1. I’m so glad you reviewed this! And now I see where Audrey picked up the habit of creating the Squirrel People.

    • I only made one resolution this year, and that was to read/review one Christopher Moore book per month. (And I have you to thank for getting me started!) The Squirrel People are creepy-cute, to be sure, and in the edition of A Dirty Job that I have, Moore goes into a little detail as to where their inspiration came from — a friend of his who actually makes her own Squirrel People. To my knowledge, they don’t contain any human souls, but who knows?

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