In the modern landscape of trilogies, series, and re-boots—many of them serious and gritty—Christopher Moore’s Secondhand Souls is a breath of fresh San Francisco air. Moore keeps it weird: Picking up where 2006’s A Dirty Job left off, San Francisco remains full of diversity and outlandish absurdity taken at face value by its inhabitants. Secondhand Souls has a lot of exposition up top—Moore’s probably right to assume that fans of A Dirty Job remember the plot’s outline, but not all the details he references—so it’s not necessary to re-read the prequel, but it is necessary to have read it. The rest is classic Moore: Many singular characters populate an overstuffed plot, and in this case, the already convoluted mythology in A Dirty Job gets even more warped, evolving to create new threats for the cast of characters battling life, death, and each other. To the uninitiated, that might all sound disastrous. But Moore aficionados know the author is more than able to fit a huge amount of plot together in a charmingly madcap way; indeed, that’s his specialty.
Secondhand Souls picks up a year after A Dirty Job ends, which left the forces of evil squeezed back into the sewers and a main character dead. In the precarious balance of good and evil, the results of those events have taken a year to manifest, and it’s not looking good for the good guys. The Death Merchants of San Francisco have been neglecting their jobs, failing to collect the objects containing souls so they can move onto a soulless person. A gaggle of ghosts is hanging out on the Golden Gate Bridge, talking to a bridge painter, one of the few new characters introduced. A screaming banshee (is there any other kind?) visits shopkeepers to warn them of coming doom. A man loses his body, his soul moved to the body of a skeleton animal. Lest you think these dark devices are actually dark, the Death Merchants speak in expletive-ridden language, the ghosts tell stories laden with humorous irony, and the banshee steals a taser gun that she wields with glee. The squirrel-man holding the man’s soul is also part lunch meat, and his dong is so big that he passes out every time he gets an erection.
The beginning has the feel of so many forced sequels, creating convoluted explanations to get the gang back together, but that’s quickly eclipsed by the sheer pace of the narrative. The plot clips along, the characters moving from one big set piece to another. To detail those events would spoil the fun Moore so rapidly unspools, including a transference of one soul into a human body (rather than one of the creepy Squirrel People, who get a much bigger role this time), more epic battles with evil, and a new villain named Lemon.
The other man characterized by a color, Minty Fresh—the tall, impossibly cool black man who wears mint green suits—is an overall well-rounded character, though it’s debatable how much of his mannerism falls into stereotype. Lemon, on the other hand, calls himself the “magical negro,” and it’s not one of Moore’s more successful satirizing of literary tropes. It’s usually a delight when Moore lampoons tired conventions and joyfully spits them out in his thick, wordy way, but it isn’t as fun when he’s trying to mimic the way two black men might talk to each other, and the otherwise fully realized Minty Fresh is diminished in character when he’s in the same room as Lemon. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it leaves a sour taste.
Luckily, the rumination of the “beta male” that provided much of the characterizations in A Dirty Job is toned way down in Secondhand Souls (perhaps due to the emergence of “men’s rights activists” and their appropriation of the ideas of alpha and beta males). Male characters, neurotic as they might be, are explored less through the prism of “alpha” and “beta” males and more through the perspective of a very anxious people, and reading this second offering demonstrates that Moore’s writing has grown more refined over the past nine years without losing any of its edge.
This isn’t the place to start with Moore, but for those who read and loved A Dirty Job, Secondhand Souls is a worthy sequel. Moore has created a world all his own, tackling dark subjects with a light-hearted irreverence. There’s a surprising amount of pathos to be found in a story that centers around a squirrel-man with a giant dong. Moore fans, rejoice.