Heather Stauffer is a writer, historian, Alzheimer's Advocate, and blogger for OldJokesGetLaughs.
My bookshelves are full of Great Plains histories, nineteenth-century novels, and mystery paperbacks, so I was surprised when, a few months ago, I checked out up a copy of Dirty Job and couldn’t put it down. Christopher Moore’s 2007 novel takes readers to San Francisco and then exposes them to the “dirty job” of being a death merchant in charge of collecting soul vessels.
Yes, a death merchant. In our culture’s current obsession with vampires and the un-dead, this story stands out by its wit and unconventional characters. The protagonist, Charlie Asher, is a Beta Male; when Alpha Males were out hunting food and defending the community, Beta Males stayed behind and made themselves available for the grieving widows.
The owner of a second-hand shop, Charlie just wants to be a good father to his daughter, Sophie. Charlie becomes a father and a widower in the same day, and soon after he discovers that he can see people’s souls attached to items in his store. Now, in addition to the other major changes in his life, he is responsible for collecting these souls and seeing that they are redistributed to new owners.
This is not a book for everyone (liberal use of death and swear words tend to be unappealing to younger readers and the faint of heart), but it is an interesting commentary on identity and purpose. Charlie is simultaneously thrown into two very important roles (death merchant and single father), and at first he tries to avoid both on the grounds of his timidity and neurosis. Once he comes to terms with his responsibilities, he is more accepting of himself and his abilities. Well, to a point.
As the narrator explains, Charlie’s existence as a Beta makes him perfect for this new role in the soul business. He is dependable, overly-committed, and disappears into the background easily. His overactive imagination helps him problem-solve unorthodox situations associated with death merchantry and fatherhood, but it also inflates his ego to the point that he believes he is Death (with a capital D), and not a servant to it. This, of course, does not quite pan out like Charlie expects.
As people start dying around him, Charlie becomes convinced that he is the reason. Fueling this belief is his daughter’s ability to kill people by calling them “kitty,” and the two massive hell hounds that appear from the shadows to protect the apartment. Instead of continuing to improve on his roles as father and merchant, he seeks ways to become a super-hero Alpha Male (in the form of his “true” identity: The Big D.).
I’m not sure why this story has stayed in my mind so long after returning my copy to the library. Perhaps its humor caught my attention. In true Christopher Moore fashion, several scenes had me literally laughing out loud; who can stay somber with a character named “Minty Fresh” or an immigrant tenant who sells Sophie’s dead pets at the Chinese market?
Perhaps more telling, in the midst of the overly outrageous scenes, are the realistic emotions of Charlie. His wife was the love of his life, and her absence prevents “death” from becoming too lighthearted in the novel. As much as Charlie changes in the story, he genuinely grieves her passing the entire time. Also grounding the reader is his attachment to Sophie. He shows his best characteristics when working at fatherhood.
Though Charlie is not cut out to be a super-hero Alpha Male, he does have the ability to excel in the things that he is good at, and that might be what resonates so strongly about this story. We can all use our talents, skills, and personalities to be part of something great, even if we aren’t “The One.”