Reading Tad Williams: “The Dirty Streets of Heaven” (Book 1 of Bobby Dollar)

Having made my way through some of Tad Willims’s heavier work, I turned to his lighter fare, in the form of the Bobby Dollar novels. I started at the beginning, The Dirty Streets of Heaven. Once again (as always) Williams shows that he has the uncanny ability excel in whatever genre he chooses to write.

If I were to summarize this novel, it would be to say that it is basically a cross between film noir and Paradise Lost. The entire story is told from the first-person viewpoint of the angel Doloriel, who goes by the name Bobby Dollar in his earthly guise. In the angelic hierarchy he is what is known as an advocate, an angel who spars with the demons of Hell over the spirits of the dead, and the outcome of their legal battle determines whether the spirit goes to Heaven or Hell. When the spirit of one of the departed isn’t where he is supposed to be, it sets off Bobby’s exploration of a conspiracy that goes far deeper than he had ever thought possible. In the process, he meets a lovely she-demon from Hell, who gives new meaning to the phrase femme fatale. Despite his best efforts–and despite what we are led to want–he is never quite able to bring his relationship to meaningful fruition. Her master/lover Eligor has simply too much power for her to break free, and it remains unclear at the end of the novel whether the asshole angel and the doomed demon will ever find their happily-ever-after.

Though he is very good at what he does, Bobby is a bit of a smartass, the type who is willing to buck authority when he thinks it’s the right thing to do. This leads him further and further astray from his official duties as an advocate, and through him we meet quite the variety of characters, including ghosts, other angel advocates, and a terrible demon that is seemingly determined to destroy our own beloved advocate. Through it all, though, he keeps up his steady stream of commentary about the bullshit that he has to endure, both at the hands of the demons of Hell (who are even more powerful than our worst fears had imagined) and at the hands of those in Heaven who may have it out for him as much as they do for their enemies.

Beneath the bitter, jaded viewpoint of Bobby, however, the novel does wrestle with some of the fundamental questions that always plague those who subscribe to religion. How is it possible that God, all-seeing, all-knowing, and benevolent, is willing to send his own creations to suffer an eternity of punishment in Hell? Is it possible to do awful things and yet still be a fundamentally good person? Is anyone, even one of the demons that have made Hell their home, truly beyond redemption? Heady stuff for an urban fantasy, huh?

Bobby, like all good noir antiheroes, has a great many character flaws, but the brilliance of the novel is that we learn to like him anyway. His seemingly-doomed love for the Countess of Cold Hands–the mistress of one of Hell’s most prominent lords–is oddly touching. Their emotional connection seems to provide both of them something that they lack in their respective roles, and it makes one wonder whether there can truly be anything in common between an angel who serves The Highest and one who serves the Adversary.

What’s more, we learn that Bobby does genuinely cares about the people around him, particularly Sam, one of his fellow advocates. As we learn more about the two of them, it’s hard not to feel Bobby’s sense of betrayal–deep and abiding–when he realizes that Sam has far more secrets than he is willing to let on, even to the person who is supposed to be his best friend.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed The Dirty Streets of Heaven. It’s a quick read, but that’s a product of both the brisk pacing and the snappy dialogue. Somehow, Williams managed to bring together a complex skein of political allegiances with a tautly-woven narrative that never lets up.

My review of the book’s sequel, Happy Hour in Hell, should be along shortly. Stay tuned!

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