Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore
Secondhand Souls (2015), by Christopher Moore is a sequel to his 2007 book A Dirty Job. Set in San Francisco, the book contains foul language, cross-dressing nuns, a homunculus of animal parts and luncheon meats with a lizard head and an enormous penis, a woman who works at a suicide-prevention hotline and keeps tracks of Wins and Losses on a whiteboard — she’s at five-and-a-half wins because one guy jumped but he lived, so half a win, right? — destructive hellhounds, sophomoric sexual humor, and, let’s see, did I forget anything? Got the language? Got the nuns? Oh, and a seven-year-old-girl who is the Illuminatus, otherwise known as Big Death. Yeah, I think that’s everything. It’s a sweet book about human kindness and about figuring out what’s right.
If you’ve read anything by Christopher Moore, this won’t surprise you. You know that throughout all the hijinks his wacky loser characters — and they often are losers, at least at first — get up to, they are, at the end, decent people and things almost always turn out all right, even if it’s in some really weird way … as it is in Secondhand Souls. I have not read A Dirty Job (but Jana has), so this review will contain some inadvertent spoilers.
Charlie Asher, the main character, used to be a Merchant of Death, a human charged with getting the souls of the dying into objects, so that they could move on, via the objects, to their next life. It’s a complicated system, but new Merchants of Death get their own copy of A Big Book of Death, so that helps. Or it helped. Charlie Asher was killed by forces from the underworld, but Audrey, his Buddhist nun girlfriend, moved his soul into a figure she made out of animal parts and lunch meat. This effigy is animate … and it isn’t the only one Audrey has made. Now other Merchants of Death are having problems; a Golden Gate Bridge maintenance man is approached by a serious, if flirtatious ghost; and Sophie, Charlie’s daughter, may have lost her Big Death abilities. She’s definitely lost her two hellhounds, leaving her vulnerable to adversarial forces from the underworld. Charlie and Audrey must work with Minty Fresh, an experienced Death Merchant, Alphonse Rivera, a retired police inspector who is a new Merchant of Death, and a host of others to confront and defeat a threatening force, one some have described as “elegant death.” The Emperor of San Francisco, a goth girl named Lily, a banshee, and others must work together to save over a thousand missing souls, and ultimately the souls of all humanity.
Moore is a master of the perfectly timed joke and the spot-on observation about humanity and its silliness. In the midst of a fairly serious scene at a police funeral he describes St Mary’s Cathedral as “the only church in the world designed after a washing machine agitator.” Before the funeral, Lily is questioned by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (they are a real SF fundraising group, by the way) about her gothy pseudo-Victorian dress with its plunging neckline.
“Only dress I had that was clean,” Lily said. Which was not entirely true, but even she knew that it was ill-advised to throw down with drag nuns at a funeral, and she felt very mature for the lie.
Characters have their defenses and their facades, but there is never a question a Charlie loves his daughter Sophie, and she loves him, that his sister Jane loves them both, and that Charlie, Audrey and their handful of strange friends — and a banshee — are going to try to do the right thing, whatever it takes.
I’d try to give a plot synopsis but I … I just can’t. I’ll say, if you can handle snarky banter, foul language, brilliant one-liners, complicated storylines, jokes about sex, jokes about hipsters, and ultimately, a story about people who realize that decency and kindness matter, and they, well, they win, kind of, then you will probably like this book. I think I knew most of what was going on, but honestly, reading A Dirty Job first could only help. And then enjoy Secondhand Souls.
I do love how much of Moore’s books center around human kindness. :)
In the notes at the back of the book, he talked about caring for a parent and an in-law in their final days, and how “kindness” was what it’s all about.
In his notes for A Dirty Job, he makes sure to thank hospice workers and their kindness (in what is, in and of itself, a frequently difficult/dirty job). Between all the sex jokes, he’s a smart guy, and it does show in his writing.