Saturday, August 19, 2006

Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore

If you come across Practical Demonkeeping, originally published in 1992, don’t be duped by its casual appearance. The 2000 Avon paperback version I received from my sister-in-law looked like it had been produced by an old desktop publishing program with neon colors and a clunky font for the title, and its déclassé demeanor was confirmed by a blanched author’s photo on the flimsy back cover. But inside these pages lurks the heartless soul of an author intent on making the reader laugh his head off.

Practical Demonkeeping has just about everything you could possibly want for a good summer read: sex, drugs, pool playing with an invisible partner, the devouring of well-drawn side characters (by an insatiable, wisecracking demon named Catch), a genie, long-lost lovers, and exploding bags of flour. It’s one of those stories that is immediately envisioned in a reader’s mind, despite the suspension of belief that is necessary (as it would be with any fantastical story).

The tale begins with The Breeze, a surfer-style drug dealer, heading out of Pine Cove, California, with a guy named Billy Winston in a Pinto wagon. As far as The Breeze is concerned, the night was intended for scoring with young co-eds; Billy’s just happy to be with the man he adores (and silently lusts over). The night doesn’t go as either planned: Breeze’s hairline betrays his age to the co-eds who want nothing to do with him and Billy’s intentions become clear enough. The Breeze tries to hitch out of town. When last we see him, however, he’s become the first meal of the night for Catch, who remains invisible until he’s about to feed.

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, then you may not be ready for the main plot: Travis the demonkeeper is looking for a way to send Catch back to hell -- while Catch tries to dispatch his keeper and pick up with some other human he can manipulate -- while Gian Hen Gian, the saltwater-drinking king of the Djinn (a genie, in other words) enlists help from Pine Cove local Augustus Brine to catch the demon. In the mean time, Travis -- who had been a seminarian at the beginning of World War I and who remains a young man while he retains control over the demon -- unexpectedly falls in love with the granddaughter of a woman he’s searching for, who still holds the papal candlesticks in which is hidden the secret incantation to return the demon to hell. Jenny (the granddaughter) is a waitress recently divorced from Robert Masterson, a drunken photographer, who has been staying with The Breeze. Got all that? Even with several characters and subplots (and others I’ve not even mentioned), Moore manages to spin each storyline without tangling them up.

Every one of his characters, no matter how small, is developed with an expert touch -- not too much, but just enough that the reader can imagine so much more. The back story is played out at the right time and with the proper pace that it never feels forced. Indeed, Moore has a deft feel for pacing in what is a quick read, but leaves you feeling you didn't miss a thing. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that this is his first novel, and I can only imagine how much better he’s become.

Is the story convoluted? Of course, but that’s half the fun. The other half is the witty repartee among the citizens of Pine Cove (and, of course, Catch). Practical Demonkeeping feels like a cult film waiting to happen; I could picture some actors and actresses resurrecting their careers by playing certain roles. As for Christopher Moore, I think the best that can be said is what Carl Hiaasen blurbs on the cover of this debut novel: “Christopher Moore is a very sick man, in the very best sense of the word.”

Why this man hasn’t become a house-hold name is beyond me. But I’ll be reading more of his work, and I heartily recommend this book at least to others.

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