The Dirty Streets of Heaven is the first of a “fantasy noir” series about the angel Doloriel, known as “Bobby Dollar,” who lives on Earth, but works for Heaven. A funny, likeable guy with a lot of angst and ennui for an angel, Bobby narrates the book in a droll style that recalls hard-boiled detective fiction as well as the world-weary narration of noir films. Although he wants to stay out of trouble, Bobby has a way of walking into it and quickly finds himself in the middle of a major incident involving Heaven and Hell. Before long, he’s dealing with demons, angels, monsters, and mysteries concerning the nature of the afterlife itself.
With its hard-boiled sensibility, depiction of the afterlife and first-person narration, The Dirty Streets of Heaven is somewhat different fare from Tad Williams’s other works, which include the epic fantasy trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and the science fiction quartet Otherland. So different, in fact, that when I first heard about the book several years ago, I wondered if it would be as much to my taste as his other works, as angels and urban fantasy aren’t my usual reading.
But Tad Williams has been my favorite author ever since I started The Dragonbone Chair in seventh grade and quickly realized I was reading the Best Fantasy Epic ever (The Dragonbone Chair is the first book of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn). In an astonishing coincidence, Williams spoke at my middle school a few months later, and I discovered that my newfound favorite author was a really nice guy who had grown up in my hometown and still lived in the area. We’ve been in occasional contact ever since, so when a call went out on his website this summer for advance readers for The Dirty Streets of Heaven, I jumped at the chance and found myself with a book that was very different from any I’d read before.
I procrastinated for a few days, admiring the book and trying to prepare myself for the experience of reading it. I don’t know how long this might have gone on, but fate soon intervened. A few days after receiving the book, I went to a party at a neighbor’s house and, passing a table outside, came across a group of people talking about, of all things, Tad Williams! I joined the conversation and ended up telling them that I loved Williams’ work, had met him, and had an advance copy of The Dirty Streets of Heaven.
Completely unsurprised, two of these nice people told me that they had already read The Dirty Streets of Heaven, it was very good, and why hadn’t I read it yet?
I mumbled something, but had no real answer. As the conversation progressed, I realized I was in way over my head. These weren’t just fans or friends of Tad’s:
They were his parents.
As soon as I had a free moment, I started the book.
It was not the intimidating work I had imagined. Yes, it has more swearing and sex than Williams’s other books (frequently carried out by angels, of course), but underneath the gritty exterior are the same compelling storytelling, sympathetic characters, and imaginative writing that have always been Williams’s hallmarks. And this is probably the funniest book he’s written; the humor starts on page one and doesn’t let up till the end.
And in addition to its humor, fantasy, and thrills, The Dirty Streets of Heaven has a special something extra that had me hooked from the get-go: it takes place where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, where both Williams and I grew up. But it’s not the real Bay Area; it’s a re-imagined and often wickedly skewed version of the Bay Area where nothing is quite the way it really is. The small cities which dot the peninsula south of San Francisco have been replaced by the sprawling metropolis of San Judas, and much of the book’s flavor comes from Bobby’s travels through this city as he attempts to do his job for Heaven amid increasingly dangerous circumstances.
But despite this fictional setting, most of the places in the book are real or based on real places. From the “Page Mill Square” office buildings in the opening scene to the towers of Stanford University, from “genteel, greenery-shrouded” University Avenue to Shoreline Park along the bay, from minor side-streets to major highways, Bobby and his friends and enemies inhabit real places that you can find on a map or visit if you’re in the area, except that in San Judas all of them have been altered in some way by Williams’s imagination.
At the bottom of this article are photos of some of the real-world places that show up (in somewhat altered form) in the novel.
For example, Stanford University occupies the same geographical space it does in reality, but is a radically different school from the one we know. As Bobby tells us, “No more modern, sandstone buildings, no more sweeping vistas to the beautiful western hills. Instead the university grew upward as much as out, spiking the skyline with dark, Gothic towers. [It] also grew more inward as well, surrounding itself with turreted walls that made it look more like the castle of an occupying army than a modern seat of learning.”
There’s a clever alternate history to explain the change, as well as a background for San Judas that is so convincing that I started to wonder if I had just missed these details in my elementary school classes on California history.
Of course, these references are just icing on the cake. The Dirty Streets of Heaven works completely on its own terms, and you don’t need to know anything about angels, detective fiction, or the Bay Area to enjoy it. Thanks to Williams’s skill at storytelling, all of these elements fit together perfectly, creating a tale that blends genres and styles with ease. Despite my initial hesitation, I couldn’t put this book down, and I’m looking forward to the next adventure in the exciting afterlife of Bobby Dollar.
The Dirty Streets of Heaven was published by DAW Books on September 4, 2012. It is 400 pages and priced at $25.95 in hardcover, or $12.99 for the digital edition.
Click any of the images in this article for larger versions.
Five Page Mill
This is actually the beginning of the book:
I was just stepping out of the elevator on the 43d floor of the Five Page Mill building when the alarms began going off — those nightmarish, clear-the-building kind like the screams of tortured robots–and I realized I’d pretty well lost any chance at the subtle approach.
University Avenue…a genteel, greenery-shrouded district where even the palm trees had their own physicians.
Even if you don’t know San Judas all that well, you may know something about Stanford University, the Harvard of the West…
Hall of Justice
“Yes, I’ve been in the Hall of Justice a time or two. ‘None of your business’ is the next answer.”
Sunset from Shoreline Park
“I’ve always preferred the city at night. I believe that San Judas, or any city, belongs to the people who sleep there.”