Think The Phantom Tollbooth crossed with Johannes Cabal. Literate, dark humor, a straightforward plot interrupted with sidebars, friendship and the kind of world where the very worse thing is the absence of anything. This time when the Hadron Collider is turned on, “the scientists had done a great deal of work to ensure that the whole portal to Hell business would never, ever happen again. Promise. Pinkie promise. Pinkie promise with sugar on top.” Mrs. Abernathy intends to use the power to drag a certain boy and his dog into Hell and redeem herself in the eyes of the Great Malevolence.
Without doubt, one of the most enjoyable aspects for me were the footnotes done in the narrator voice. I can easily imagine my uncle (and now myself) in that role, the kind of innocent-sounding advice that suggests one try a little experiement on their parents–because they are sure to enjoy it. “Go on! Try being a Greek chorus at home!” There’s the musing on collective animal nouns, such as a ‘smack’ of jellyfish, a parliament of owls, a scold of jays and a sleuth of bears–with exceptions of the Three Bears, obviously, “because they took ages to work out who had burgled their house.” Then there are asides on tragedy versus comedy, the function of chancellors, and scientists who came to bad ends.
“Professor Hilbert smiled in that mad way scientists have of smiling just before the lightning strikes and the monster made up of bits of dead people comes to life and starts looking for someone to blame for plugging him into the mains and lighting him up like a Christmas tree.”
The cast of characters broadens, bringing back some players from the last book and enlarging their roles. Of course, earnest Samuel and faithful Boswell return, this time along with Constable Peel, who harbors a guilty secret from when he was four, and Sergeant Rowan who almost caught Nurd on his Mr. Toad adventures. I found it a pleasure to have police officers who weren’t bumbling, and who were able to tactfully apply the law. The optimistic ice-cream man and the equally optimistic ball of ooze Crudford (with top hat) had me laughing, mostly because, wow, do I ever not think like that (“when you’re made of jelly, and only have a hat to your name, it can only get better, can’t it?”). Nurd and his sidekick Wormwood are on the run in Hell in the Aston Martin, cleverly disguised as a rock. Then there were the uproariously, unapologetic, hygenically challenged quartet of dwarves, Jolly, Mumbles, Dozy and Angry. “Dozy was the kind of bloke who could take a nap while he was already taking another nap.“
“The sergeant had found some unexpected common ground with Jolly, who had explained to him that the dwarfs’ criminal behavior was all society’s fault. Sergeant Rowan also believed this was true, mainly because society hadn’t found a way to lock them up and throw away the key.”
I’d bet this book is most likely to be enjoyed by very literate kids to adults. Not because of subject matter, but because other narrative digressions including the nature of an object àla Magritte, the crafting of beer and the nature of crime and punishment. However, if one ignores the footnotes, there’s a lot less to confuse–a clever way to appeal to more than one age group. I won’t claim this is high literature, but it is entertaining, with laugh-out-loud moments and a heart in the right place. Besides, I learned more than a thing or two and remembered some others from a very long ago physics class–even if I could have happily lived the rest of my life without knowing “to lant.” (1)
(1) To flavor with aged urine. And you thought the expression “this beer tastes like piss” was hyperbole.