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The Devil tweets with Robert Olen Butler's help

July 19, 2009|Carolyn Kellogg

Robert Olen Butler is an author with a flair for the big concept. Inspired by the information that consciousness lasts for 1.5 minutes after decapitation, he wrote "Severance," 62 short (240-word) stories of the last thoughts of those, real and imagined, who've just lost their heads. Marie Antoinette, John the Baptist, Medusa, Cicero and a chicken all, uh, made the cut.

Then there was 2008's "Intercourse," the paired narratives of what's going through the minds of couples as they copulate (Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, Napoleon and Josephine).

Up next is "Hell" in September. It's a longer narrative, one that bumps into another batch of famous characters, including Humphrey Bogart, Shakespeare, popes and presidents.

And since July 4, the Butler's Devil has been sending out missives on Twitter, as @TweetsFromHell. A sample:

July 11: Dick Cheney & Beelzebub secretly talk strategy for No. 2 guy to control No. 1, while Satan & G.W. Bush boohoo over disapproving fathers

July 4: A. Lincoln & J.W. Booth dissolve wailing as one in sulfur rain & share nights at the theatre: forgotten lines & shooting pains & bad reviews

Tweeting as the Devil is a pretty brilliant idea, promising fun and wickedness. But Butler's parade of the famous is starting to feel a little rote. Dick Cheney -- really? Isn't that a little easy? Isn't the vice president who shot a friend in the face, well, a pretty obvious bad guy?

Butler is no slouch -- he won a Pulitzer in 1993 for his short-story collection "A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain" and is a professor of creative writing at Florida State. But looking back, it feels like he's begun leaning on celebrity for a while to do some of the storytelling work for him.

And celebrities are, by their nature, flattened out, little more than symbols -- can imagining Bill and Hillary's sex life amount to any more than a cheap laugh or two? Didn't Dante see popes in hell about 700 years ago? Isn't there a more interesting slant on evil than Dick Cheney?

Sigh. I imagine I'll burn in hell for saying so. On Twitter, at least.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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