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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Michael Poore's "Up Jumps the Devil"

Author:  Michael Poore  
Title:  Up Jumps the Devil
Plot Type:  A Modern Fable
Ratings:  Violence4, Sensuality4, Humor4
Publisher:  Ecco (an imprint of HarperCollins, 8/2012)

     The protagonist—and sometimes the antagonist—of this novel is John Scratch (aka the Devil), who caused the separation of Heaven and Earth when he introduced sex to the other angels. (It's a long story!)  At first, life on Earth was good for the Devil because he had his lady love, Arden, by his side. Soon, though, Arden grew to hate the violence and coarseness of the humans so much that she returned to Heaven. The Devil has spend centuries trying to get her back, and he has succeeded several times—but only temporarily. The Devil believes that if he can get the humans to shape up and improve life on earth, Arden will come back to him for good. We get a number of historical flashbacks as the Devil crosses paths with historical celebrities, including Pocahontas at Jamestown; Ben Franklininvestigating electricity in colonial Philadelphia; and a three-way meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and a Devil-himself-possessed John F. Kennedy.

     Here's a description of the Devil's state of mind at this point in time as he uses his inner angst to win a blues-playing contest: "The Devil understood the secret of the blues....These blues weren't loneliness or the smallest of empty moments....This blues had enough problems without people feeling sorry for it. This blues wanted them scared to death, because somebody was going to PAY, goddammit! The Devil had been kicked out of HEAVEN! and had his true love stolen by GOD! and his true love had left him four different times and he hadn't seen her for three hundred YEARS! and when he played the guitar it was like strangling Creation because no one ever, EVER had the blues like the Devil had the blues." (p. 85)

     The plot is a mash-up of the Book of Genesis and the Robert Johnson crossroads myth with a smidgen of Al Pacino's devilish John Milton character in the film, Devil's Advocate. The sweeping saga begins with the Creation and winds first through ancient Egypt and Rome and then on to America, where the Devil hopes that the native peoples will do a better job with their lives than the Old World inhabitants have done. (He is quite disappointed when the first European explorers reach American shores.) 

     The present-day plot begins in 1969 when three hippie musicians decide to give their careers one last shot by waiting at an isolated crossroad for the Devil to make them a deal. Mark Fish wants money; Memory wants fame; and Zachary Bull Horse wants to make the world a better place. When the Devil accepts their souls in exchange for granting these wishes, the first thing he does is get them on the program at Woodstock, where they play just one haunting song and then are nearly killed during a thunderstorm. From that point on, they take separate paths, with the Devil leading (or dragging) them forward. Fish, whose greed always gets the best of him, goes into the insurance business and then into big-time religion. Zachary, who was actually struck by lightning in the storm at Woodstock, dabbles in cryonics and moves on to computers. Memory, who has no last name because she can't remember the early years of her life, becomes a drugged-out rock star. All three stumble through a series of high points and very low points in their lives, each one orchestrated by the Devil as he tries his best to make them change America into a better place so that Arden will come back to himbut he always fails.

     Several times over the centuries, the Devil believes that he has found a way to save America—to get humans to do the right thing, but his ideas never work. For example, when he talks Nat Turner into leading his rebellion, the Devil sees it as an early civil rights experiment, hoping that a little violence will frighten white plantation owners enough to realize that if they would just free the slaves, there wouldn't be any more racial violence. Obviously that idea backfired—as do most of his other plans over the years. By the time we get to the late 20th century, the Devil is dealing with a celebrity-obsessed, me-first culture that even he can't figure out how to heal. Among the Devil's (and the author's) modern targets are reality TV shows, mega-churches, television evangelists, bad-girl celebrity starlets, and inane computer games. As hard as John Scratch tries, he can't get the American people to look outside themselves and make their world a better, more peaceful place, which means that Arden probably won't be coming back. At one point he explains his frustration: "I've always kind of assumed...that people would thirst for knowledge and understanding. But they don't. They thirst to know things that support what they already believe. They especially like to hide from anything that looks like it might cost them money." (p. 92)

     When the Devil is ruminating about the human condition at various points in his long, long existence, the narrative glitters with provocative wit. John Scratch is a nuanced man, but with violence at his core, which he proves every once in awhile just in case we (or his various minions) forget just who he is. The most poignant flashback is the Gettysburg scene in which the Devil bets his traveling companion that he can go three days as a human with no problem at all. Just as he gives up his immortal soul, he is captured by the Confederate Army and forced to become a weaponless soldier in Pickett's Charge, where he gets his very first dose of human fear—an experience that changes his character forever. 

     Sometimes, though, the flashbacks fall flat. The Nat Turner scene, in particular, feels stiff and forced, as does the MLK-RFK-JFK scene. And the sex scenes, which thankfully don't have much graphic detail, are embarrassingly awkward—especially when the Devil hooks up with Pocahontas in the river and when he twice forces his sexual attentions on unconscious women—pretty disgusting, even for the Devil

     All of the primary characters are fully developed and nicely drawn, each with a few good points but all with plenty of juicy flaws to trip them up time and time again. The Devil is a wonderful character, with his sly asides, his naive epiphanies that never lead him on the path he thinks they will, and his rare signs of good-heartedness that occasionally peek through when he accidentally lets his hard, sarcastic shield slip aside momentarily. He often reminded me of trickster gods like Loki in Norse mythology or Coyote in Native American cultures. He even has a passing resemblance to the cagey, arrogant Bugs Bunny of cartoon film fame. In the following quotation, Bob Clampett, one of Bugs Bunny's creators, writes in the first person as Bugs describes himself—and his words also describe Poore’s John Scratch. (Source: Draw the Looney Toons, 2005)
 “Some people call me cocky and brash, but actually I am just self-assured. I'm nonchalant, im­perturbable, contemplative. I play it cool, but I can get hot under the collar. And above all I'm a very 'aware' character....And I sometimes don't act, I react....When momentarily I appear to be cornered or in dire danger and I scream, don't be consoined [sic] – it's actually a big put-on. Let's face it Doc. I've read the script and I al­ready know how it turns out.”

     Although the book has its flaws, I do recommend it for its great title character and its madcap story. Christopher Moore wrote a nice cover blurb, and I imagine that his fans will enjoy this book. And speaking of the cover, kudos to Allison Forner for the cover design and Brian Stauffer for the sleek and striking artwork. Click HERE to read my reviews of the books in Christopher Moore's VAMPIRE TRILOGY.

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