Thursday, January 24, 2013

Up Jumped The Devil by Michael Poore - Review

Tracks for the Evening: Up Jumped the Devil, Cry Little Sister, People of the South Windmaybe a little bit of this cover of "Crossroad Blues".  Also, quite a bit of this.  Warning, light spoilers.

It’s the car that really won it for me. 

To explain:  In Michael Poore’s new rapscallion of a novel Up Jumps the Devil[1], the Devil is the classic, deal making, guitar playing, crossroads meeting Devil.  He’s got all the evil you’d expect of, well, the first person ever to shake a fist at the Lord God Almighty.  But he does bad with such style.  He smokes most things in the book.  He has sleazy love-affairs on live TV with Not!Miley Cyrus.  And he drives a Midnight Blue 1961 Lincoln Continental.
It's the one in front.
See, it’s easy to write an evil character.  You give him some puppies to kick, give her some orphans to smack, it’s easy.  What’s hard is writing fun, creative evil.  That said, Michael Poore’s Devil isn’t all that evil.  He’s not even sinister.  It’s more that he’s just very Chaotic Neutral[2].  He gives no real care to issues of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ but more to things like ‘this is fun’ or ‘that guy’s an asshole.’  It’s a rather Blue-and-Orange Morality, and it does a great job of making the Devil a likable character.  But he’s also fairly deep too.  There’s a heavy undercurrent of sadness in him, a world weariness.  And quite a lot of anger.  After all, “he got kicked out of HEavEN! And had his true love stolen by GOD! And his true love had let him four different times and he hadn’t seen her for three hundred YEARS!”

That quote is from a second reason I want to praise the novel.  Writing about music is hard.  Writing about music is like dancing about architecture[3] or drawing about taste.  And yet, in several instances Poore really achieves it.  I’m reminded favourably about the final chapter of Jennifer Egan’s “Visit from the Goon Squad” which also managed to make writing about music work.  The story, which follows three desperate musicians making a deal with the Devil, naturally involves quite a lot of music, including a memorable scene at Woodstock and an epic Blues-Off between the Devil and Two-John Spode.[4]

The three musicians are actually rather important to one of the important themes of the novel:  Why people want to be famous and what it means.  Memory[5], an amnesiac, wants to be famous to fill the deep hole where her memories should be, but also so someone will recognize her, maybe bring back her old life.  Fish[6], a loathsome sort of man, wants to be famous because famous means money and money buys respect and women.  Zachary[7] dreams using fame to Change The World For the Better™.  The novel does a good job of exploring the psychology of all of these characters, and where their fame takes them.  All three have highly satisfying narrative arcs, each given just the right amount of time.  
"You saw her soul and your soul and everyone's soul
together, all part of the same Bible Story,
and you looked at her and loved her."

The plot, which takes place in the 60s and the Noughties, and also the 18th and 19th and 20th centuries, and also Egypt and Rome, can be very haphazard, and it runs the risk of getting away from itself.  However, each chapter does what it needs to do succinctly, meaning that when we jump around to various points in history where the Devil giving history a damn good thrashing[8].  That said, despite bits where the Devil is, say, inventing Nukes or seducing Jackie Kennedy (no, really), the use of history does a lot for the novel.  While I wasn’t around in the 60’s and 70’s, I read and I get a feel for what it was like.  The mood is there, and the feelings, and even the music, bleeding through the pages.  The description of the events at Woodstock is so palpable even I was swaying along to the music that I couldn’t even hear.  There are also quite a few sections set during the European colonization of the Americas, and you really get a sense of being there while the land of the free and brave was colonized and pillaged.

There are many ways like that where the use of history is graceful, but is also sharp as a knife.  There’s a bit during the American Civil War where the Devil really experiences warfare and talks about how, surely, people will see how horrible the war is and will cease warfare very soon.  At that I tucked my tail between my legs and hung my head in apology for my species.  When the Devil makes you ashamed of yourself, you feel ashamed

Even the Devil is offended by the
lack of Civility.
There’s a lot to praise about this book[9], and I wish I could quote some of it, but I was given a rare gift of reading an uncorrected proof.  (thank you, @DayCathy).  I’ll assume that most of the good stuff was left in.  Even if some of the words are changed, there’s a lot of heart in the book.  While one of its themes is about fame and getting famous, the second half seems to focus much more on the issues of humanity, what it is and what it means.  There’s a wonderful quote from Nat Turner, that "I am a man, sir. Slavery is a circumstance I find myself in. A man can be stronger than his circumstances."[10]   It’s interesting that it takes the Devil to show us the face of Humanity, both its good and its bad.  But then again, sometimes it takes the Liminal Figure, the character who is separate and yet a part of a culture to examine it properly.
I could fangirl for a very long time about this book.  But I’m going to shamelessly steal[11] from Doug Walker, and talk about who would or would not like this book.

Who wouldn't like it?  I suppose anyone with delicate sensibilities not ready for the rather bawdy narrative.  Also, people expecting epic apocalyptic knockdown dragout angel vs. devil fights will be disappointed   There really aren't a lot of epic magic battles, it's all very...human.  Which makes it good.  But I figured it's fair warning.

I think anyone who would like it would be people who like Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett[12] would probably get a kick out of this book.  It has that similar madcap feeling, though without the looming apocalypse.  I think people who watch Supernatural or play Deadlands would also probably enjoy this quite a bit. currently has this picture, which sounds like an equally fabulous suggestion.  I’d advise it to anyone who’s looking for a dark comedy who doesn’t mind a bit of romance, but I’d also give it to someone who’s at the very bottom of their artistic totem pole (in writing, music, art, basket-weaving) as a cautionary, if uplifting, tale of what fame costs, but also what you can get out of it if your intentions are pure.  I might also give it to someone who’s too pessimistic about this cruel world, to see if they found the book as uplifting as I[13] did.  If you’re just looking for a fun comedy and a sweet bit of romance to pass a road trip, this is definitely what you’re looking for. 

"They always caught on fire, no matter
how careful he was. 
Go pick up a copy of Up Jumps The Devil, and follow the author here on Twitter @michaelpoore007.

[1] From Harper Collins, Published 2012.
[2] Actually, you could have long, long arguments about what the Devil’s morality alignment is.  He does so many chaotic things, but he honors his agreements and can’t help making deals for souls.  Lawful Chaotic?
[3] Martin Mull’s line, not mine. 
[4] I mean, you really can’t have a story about Old Scratch without bringing in a music battle.
[5] Chaotic Good to Neutral Good
[6] Stupid Greedy to Lawful Evil
[7] Lawful Good to Neutral Good
[8] He makes Washington into a Werewolf.  No, really.   Why isn’t there a whole book about that?  Edit: Actually, I googled it.  There actually is a book called George Washington: Werewolf. is not impressed with it.  I want to read it.
[9] I couldn’t find ways to work in the bits where we see people’s souls, or the Devil’s TvShow, Think It Over, where on live TV someone at random is given a deal they can hardly refuse.  It’s dark and a bit sick, but I would still watch it.
[10] Please let this quote remain in its flawless state. I pray the same of the description of the Devil’s role as The Sphinx. "The mission of the Sphinx was to make Egypt wise by eating dumb people."  I’ll stop spoiling all the good quotes now, forgive me.
[11] As taught by Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist, which you should also read.
[12] Those names, in certain parts of the internet, are akin to sorcery in their power to raise up armies and bring hope in times of sorrow.  I may or may not be abusing that power for the search engines.
[13] I’m an incurable optimist.  Not even the Devil will drag me down.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, that's not an uncorrected proof, Jackson. Quote away! I'm so glad you liked it and wrote this up. Make sure you post portions of this to Goodreads, Amazon. etc., too, because that can really make a difference. Since you've already completed the assignment for a few weeks from now, start scouting out places you could publish this review to get even more eyeballs on the book. I'm @daycathy on Twitter, btw.