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Book cover art by William Staehle (left).
Review © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner.

I suppose the only thing harder than writing comedy is critiquing comedy. Nothing is more dependent upon personal taste. Your sense of humor will dictate whether you laugh at Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Jim Carrey, Pauly Shore or anyone else. If it works for you, you laugh. If it doesn't, you don't. Unlike most novels, where the criticisms will focus on plot logic and good characterization and narrative craftsmanship and things like that, in a comic novel, all anyone really wants to know is whether it was funny or not. I have friends who have been pushing Christopher Moore on me with nearly religious fervor, declaring him hilarious and side-splitting and outrageous and uproarious and hysterical and every other synonym for "funny" their vocabularies can muster. Having finally read a novel of his, all I can really say is...he isn't. To me, anyway.

The premise is of A Dirty Job is death, a topic which has been convered in, I think, a funny fashion repeatedly by Pratchett. The protagonist is a nebbishy San Franciscan "beta male" widower named Charlie Asher, who finds to his dismay that he has inherited the job of Death. Not really the Death, though, simply a Death, a "Death Merchant" whose job it is to gather the souls of the recently departed — ensconced in objects that glow red to Charlie's sight — and move them on to new owners before the forces of darkness get hold of them and wreak all sorts of havoc upon the world. The forces of darkness live in the sewers, which kind of made me wonder why they hadn't been witnessed by hundreds of mentally ill homeless people over the decades, and where they lived before there were sewers under San Francisco, or even before there was a San Francisco.

The early chapters are devoted to establishing Charlie and his situation through sitcommish exaggeration. Moore belongs to that class of comedy writer whose version of the real world is inhabited solely by unreal characters. That's a good approach, within limits. There's a line up to which exaggeratedly-silly is funny, beyond which it's just exaggeratedly-silly. Everyone here is ratcheted up not one or two but multiple degrees of silliness, so we'll have no misunderstanding about how silly they are. Take the Russian woman who helps Charlie look after his baby, who always compares everything she sees to bears, because, you know, bears, Russians — har! Or take Lily, the goth girl who works the register at Charlie's thrift shop. Believe it or not, I've known a lot of goth girls, and they're fairly silly and melodramatic all on their own. (Not that that isn't part of their charm!) Lily is a spoof of a goth girl, a redundant concept if ever there was one. As such, she's less funny than if she were the type of goth girl someone could actually look at and say, "Heh heh, I know someone like that."

That Moore's comedy is as labored as it is is probably why he doesn't make me laugh. Not to say he won't make you laugh. I just didn't laugh. His jokes play exactly like sitcom jokes. They feel like they've been not only written, but then vetted by focus groups and committees, and supplied with a laugh track. When the jokes are straining so hard to crack me up that I can practically see them breaking out in a sweat, they usually don't make me laugh. I just think to myself, that poor little joke, working so hard for so little payoff. Where good comedy writers like Pratchett or the immortal P.G. Wodehouse occasionally engage in exaggerated farce, mostly what they're known for is finding the humor within a situation and running with it, as opposed to what Moore does, which is to find a situation and then force-feed humor into it.

Take an early scene where the flustered Charlie confronts another Death Merchant, a seven-foot-tall black man who wears green suits and whose name is Minty Fresh for no reason other than Moore thought it would be funny. But because it's so forced, so obviously meant to be funny, I didn't laugh. I just thought, what a dumb name for anyone, tall black man or otherwise. Charlie has a scuffle in Minty Fresh's music store, where he knocks over a stack of Judy Garland CD's. Why would they be Judy Garland CD's? Because the shop is in Castro, the gay community. And gay men love showtunes, right? Ho ho ho! Yep, Judy Garland. That's pretty gay!

So the bottom line is: A Dirty Job just isn't all that funny. And as it's a comic novel, that's the key question answered right there. It isn't that there's anything uninteresting about the premise, or that there aren't good scenes here or there, or that the character development is an utter failure. I can't really say any of those things. I could even say that one or two of the jokes do hit, particularly a profoundly tasteless gag involving Teletubbies worthy of Sarah Silverman. I will say that if you're already a Christopher Moore fan and you know his sense of humor is simpatico with your own, then this book'll kill ya. If you're not, then at best, you're in for grevious bodily harm.

(For what it's worth, I never thought Seinfeld was funny either.)