From icky to exquisite

Robert Olen Butler's "Hell" is the perfect summer read.

Well, maybe not. Some readers will consider heat the only thing the book and summer have in common.

Butler's depiction of his title environment is full of heat, along with screams, agony, sulphur and the Bee Gees. It is an appropriate topic for a writer who is both a veteran of the Vietnam War and of four busted marriages, the last spectacularly from novelist Elizabeth Dewberry.

Still, like a beach novel, this book is compulsively readable. Here is the Pulitzer Prize-winning ("A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain") Butler's tale of the Inferno of Hatcher McCord, a deceased national news anchorman. McCord is currently in a relationship with Anne Boleyn, the wife of King Henry VIII, whose head (Anne's, that is) spends quite a bit of time unattached from her body. And he is trying to figure out how to get himself and Anne out of their torment.

McCord must wade through an ocean of suffering, much of which is over the top -- icky gross, violent, profane -- but which, if you can get through it, leads to complex and exquisitely written set pieces of inspired insight into the sinful and broken nature of humanity.

This unlikely and yet seamless combination of icky gross and exquisite adds to the book's attraction. Butler is writing about a kind of train wreck, which gives it a creepy advantage in readability. But like "Tender Is the Night," F. Scott Fitzgerald's novelization of his train wreck marriage, the prose flows in a seemingly effortless stream.

This is satire, and Butler is a baby boomer, so the personalities McCord encounters in hell span mostly the mid- to late-20th century and include darkly hilarious interviews with Richard Nixon, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, among others.

Jimmy Carter and Al Gore are notable in their absence, which brings up the question of whether there is a heaven and who is in it. Butler gores a lot of sacred cows, however, and you'll find more than one person you thought would be upstairs apparently downstairs.

McCord also encounters Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus. Judas is convinced that he betrayed Jesus because Jesus ordered him to do it and that the Messiah is coming back to get him one of these millennia. The maniacal certainty of Judas, by whom McCord is disastrously deceived, leaves the reader with the impression that Satan (in a cinematic, crystal-clear cameo) is really the only one in charge.

But the end of "Hell" indicates that the book is less about the afterlife and more about the here and now. Given that life has its hellish aspects, what do we do? Embrace it, Butler seems to say. It's the only game in town.