Review: Purgatory by Tim Dodge

On September 24, 2012, in Book Review, Cathy Russell, by Catherine Russell


In Purgatory, by Tim Dodge, Charles Cunningham joins forces with Edgar Allan Poe and a mysterious character named Billy to win his salvation and gain admittance to heaven. To accomplish this, they journey to Earth to watch over Charles’s daughter, who is now an old woman. Through this act of kindness toward the daughter he barely knew in life, Charles hopes to gain admittance to the heaven that’s been denied him. But can he help his daughter before she’s harmed by a woman from his own past – a woman bent on destroying him from beyond the grave?

From its Amazon description:

PURGATORY is a humorous romp through mid-21st century America, teaching the four spirits that, with determination, they can overcome the things that keep them from happiness. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll never think of Edgar Allan Poe the same way again.

From the description I anticipated a humorous tale of the afterlife. However, though the tale was told in a light-hearted manner, the humor was deadpan – situational rather than through the prose itself, and I fear I missed many of the jokes. The elements were there, as promised. Edgar Allan Poe prominently featured alongside the main character, and the bumbling Billy tagged along. The three combined forces to save Charles’s daughter from a manic woman obsessed with keeping Charles from getting into Heaven.

The plot progresses smoothly – a little too smoothly, so that the reader easily follows the action. However, the villain – an intelligent woman while she lived – makes many obvious mistakes. Her tragic flaw lies in her impulsiveness overriding her intellect, but her unwitting and bumbling cohort also commits outrageous acts of stupidity. It’s just a little too simple for the good guys to luck out getting such incompetent bad guys. Neither are the heroes immune to convenient stupidity. Charles fails to recognize his former mistress by sight, name, or description.

However, the character of Edgar Allan Poe steals the show. He longs for his lost love, even as he drowns his sorrows with copious quantities of alcohol; yet is thoughtful enough to think of others besides himself. His short story, The Gold Bug, features prominently in the narrative; and Poe himself is endearing – portrayed as a severely flawed but noble person. The character of Billy acts as foil to Poe – both characters battle the demons that haunted them in life; they both also reflect aspects of Charles himself – though the character of Charles is less likable.

By the book’s end, questions from the beginning are never addressed. The major plot point concludes, but we’re left wondering what it was all about. Why was Purgatory a place and not the transition that Catholicism says (a fact of which Charles’s teacher nuns were apparently unaware)? Perhaps the adventure itself was the transition? Why did Charles team up with Poe and Billy but never meet anyone else in the Afterlife? And why do spirits apparently go back and forth to Earth posing as humans?

Purgatory is an easy and light-hearted read for anyone with a taste for the bizarre. Though I found the comedy easy to overlook, others may not. The plot is easy to follow, and though the humor was not my cup of tea, others might find it more to their taste.

After all, in the words of Bern Williams, “What a strange world this would be if we all had the same sense of humor.”

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