San Francisco thrift shop owner Charlie Asher is in first-time-father fluster when his ever-so-patient wife Rachel shoos him from the recovery room so she and baby Sophie can catch a break from his obsessive TLC. He gets no farther than the minivan when he spies his wife's favorite Sarah McLachlan CD and turns heel to hustle it back to her quarters. When he arrives, he finds a tall black man decked out in Andes-Mint green standing at her bedside. Startled that both father and newborn can apparently see him, the minty one awkwardly informs Charlie that Rachel is dead, and then vanishes amid the rush of crash carts and the futile attempts to revive her.
It's a heck of a way to start a comedy, but then, as the title of Christopher Moore's ninth novel suggests, death is indeed A Dirty Job.
Bereaved, Charlie tracks down the angel of death. His name is Minty Fresh, and he informs Charlie that, because he could see him in Rachel's room, he, like Minty, is a "death merchant" whose calling is to attend certain death scenes, retrieve the departing soul in a vessel and convey it to a new body. They're not grim reapers, he explains, but grim sowers—or should be. The problem is, Charlie seems to be causing deaths, and to his horror, so is baby Sophie, not an attractive quality in a newborn.
Soon Charlie finds himself in a battle to the death with raven-like Dark Forces that swoop from the sewers, cruise in a vintage Cadillac and threaten Armageddon, or at least a bad case of bird flu. It's up to Charlie, his Goth assistant Lily, Minty Fresh and a pint-sized army whose souls are double-parked in the bodies of squirrels to save San Francisco when its (death) ship comes in.
If anyone can truly laugh in the face of death, it would be Moore. Good-hearted, well intentioned, utterly fearless and totally irreverent, the one-time Ohio State anthropology major previously cannonballed into such treacherous waters as the life of Jesus (Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal), and laid waste to Christmas books by combining brain-eating zombies with a murderous Santa Claus in The Stupidest Angel.
All kidding aside however, it was a personal loss that inspired A Dirty Job.
"My mom passed away in 1999 and I was her primary caretaker for the last five months of her life. It was one of the most difficult things I've ever done, and I do think it changed the way I look at everything," he says from his home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. " It was the seminal experience informing this book and a big motivator for writing it. I'm not sure that the book helped me deal with my mother's passing as much as it sort of paid homage to her and the people who care for the dying. I was profoundly impressed by the people who work with hospice."
Moore being Moore, there was only one way to deal with death.
"Actually, having been through a number of death and dying situations in the last few years, I found that it was quite natural to go to the humor button in dealing with death. I also found that the people who seemed to weather the death of a loved one the best were those who could keep access to their sense of humor, so it seemed very natural to have fun with the subject," he says.
Moore doesn't get weighed down in religious doctrine. Instead, he posits a perfectly rational, if slightly chaotic, means by which life, death and reincarnation might occur. I mean, who's to say a Sarah McLachlan CD might not serve as a perfectly acceptable soul coaster?
"I wanted to pay attention to the idea of the ongoing nature of the soul, but I was really trying not to duplicate stuff that had come before me," he admits. "There have been a lot of spooky, Sixth Sense sorts of stories on death and dying and I was trying to steer clear of replicating their mechanisms, so by reaction, mine became kind of convoluted. I didn't outright reject or accept any paradigms or belief systems, I just tried to present the possibility that there was an underlying order to the ascension of the soul that would work within the spiritual framework of a Buddhist, a Christian, a Hindu, whoever."
Don't expect a straight answer on his personal view of reincarnation, however.
"I believe at some point in my spiritual evolution my soul did a stint as a two-slice toaster," he says. "I can feel the toast of my inner being, but only two slices. Weird, huh?"
Moore's anthropology studies have served him well: his books have been inspired by living among the colorful natives of Micronesia (Island of the Sequined Love Nun), meeting a Native American shaman in Montana (Coyote Blue), hanging with marine biologists in Hawaii (Fluke) and exploring San Francisco (Bloodsucking Fiends). His next book will be a sequel to Fiends, his 1995 vampire romp, set once again in his favorite city by the bay.
"San Francisco has such a great contrast of architecture, with natural beauty, dark and light, art and commerce, plus all the different ethnic cultures, it's like a big party bowl of weirdness," he says. "It's still an inspirational setting for a macabre story. San Francisco still feels like a natural habitat for vampires."
If he's been able to lighten us up just a little on the gloomy subject of death, Moore says he will have completed his dirty job.
"One of the things that eludes me is how people will hush you when you make a death joke, as if Death will hear you. It's that fear of irony thing: Don't say that, you could die yourself someday. Well duh! That's sort of the point of the book, isn't it? No one gets out alive; we might as well laugh at it."
Jay MacDonald enjoys every sandwich he eats in Oxford, Mississippi.