Monday, September 3, 2012

Does Anyone Sit On the Throne in the Eternal Kingdom?

Tad Williams, The Dirty Streets of Heaven

The promo material accompanying Tad Williams’ first Urban Fantasy claims that “you’ve never read anything like The Dirty Streets of Heaven.” I most certainly have. Thomas Sniegoski and Vicki Pettersson run the same Judeo-Christian themes that drive Williams, and his style—a lumpy blend of ethereal fantasia and Dashiell Hammett noir—channels writers from Laurel K Hamilton to Jim Butcher to Seanan McGuire. Williams should be above this.

Doloriel, a lesser angel, walks the earth as Bobby Dollar. He exists to advocate for the souls of the newly deceased at the throne of judgment. But he has grown bored with his job, assuaging the monotony by bouncing through a string of sexual encounters and drunken nights. But he arrives at one judgment seat to find the soul missing. Suddenly a nexus of transcendent fury surrounds him as Heaven and Hell approach the brink of war over this breach of eternity.

Bobby Dollar is an interesting character, couched in interesting circumstances. Williams plays him against a complex ensemble: cynical angels, optimistic demons, humans who have pierced the veil and lived to regret it. He also stages this troupe against a background of evocative California decay. But then Williams turns around and saddles them with an ordinary story that will only surprise readers who have never cracked an Urban Fantasy before.

When the Eternal Forces discover the missing souls, a political brouhaha ensues that makes the Reykjavik Accords look like a street scuffle. Such an act should be completely impossible. But then a major demon who coincidentally lives in Bobby Dollar’s neighborhood thinks Bobby has an important artifact which would upset the balance of power. Bobby has no idea what the artifact might be, but he knows many supernaturals would kill him for it.

Despite his angelic status, Bobby lives in a world of moral compromise, devoid of certainties. He has never met God, and cannot vouch for any religion. Eternal life has come to mean doing what he’s told, imbued with no truth or meaning. The powers of Hell may live in eternal, transcendent torment, but at least they know why. Bobby Dollar knows nothing. But as facts unfold, he comes to one startling realization: someone other than God may hold power in Heaven.

I like this concept. I can even understand where it comes from. With the recent controversies surrounding abuses in church, and religious institutions dragging their heels in social change and justice, instead of taking the lead, it’s hard to wonder who’s in charge. Surely not the God of reformers like Jeremiah, Jesus, and Mohammed. All of them spoke out against corruption and injustice. Where are their sentiments now?

People want God to be bold. Even atheists I know say they want the God they don’t believe in to be muscular, take bold stands, and fight the debased forces of this world. Many Americans don’t know that most Christian denominations opposed the 2003 Iraq war, because pastors feared to say so from the pulpits. Instead of a spirit of courage, American religion is dominated by fear and conformity. Religious people are too timid to follow the example of their prophets and messiahs.

English poet William Blake suggested that the Church had become dominated by a spirit of fear that he identified with Satan. Though outspokenly Christian, Blake wrote that “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion,” an aphorism that could describe Tad Williams’ grim eternity. (Though he avoids aligning with any one religion, his world is clearly Judeo-Christian.) Bobby Dollar engages in sensuality bordering on divine mutiny.

Williams reflects this in his depictions of Heaven and Hell. One of his demons explains that her memory goes back hundreds of years, through Satan’s tortures and eons of suffering, back to her human life, where abuse and violence led her to act out in destruction. The denizens of Heaven, though, have no memory going back far. Their eternity in God’s fields is blissful, but bland. Williams dares us to ask which is worse.

I just wish more of these hard questions made it into the book.

Notwithstanding his complex philosophical implications, Williams doesn’t take the story nearly as far as his premise. His bog-standard noir story consists of fistfights, car chases, and sexual encounters so anti-romantic that they make me shrivel when I should feel aroused. At over 400 pages, this book has space to do more and better; and I know Williams has more in him. This book just doesn’t go where it’s needed.

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