I’ve just re-read Last Call by Tim Powers. I love this book.
I’m a big fan of all of Tim Powers’s books, but this one is my absolute favourite. It’s been about five years since I last read it, and I love it as much now as I did the first time I read it. Maybe more, because I know a little more about the real-world things he’s talking about. Not that I believe in the occult aspects of the book, but I know now about the traditions he draws from, and I’m better able to appreciate the rich, deep background he’s created with it.
I read a fair amount of modern fantasy, because I like the juxtaposition of the non-rational with the structured, technological milieu that is modern society. Until Last Call, though, most of the stuff I read was drawn from the well of celtic myth and paganism, things like Emma Bull’s The War for the Oaks and Charles de Lint’s Moonheart*.
Last Call was the first modern fantasy book that I read that used other themes – in this case, a mix of ceremonial magic in the Western esoteric tradition, Jungian archetypes, and Arthurian myth. It did a fantastic job of making you believe in a real underground network of people who are clued in on some level, in the know about the mystic underbelly that most folks refuse to acknowledge. And it showed the level of obsession that was necessary to take part in it**.
So, what’s the book about? It’s about a man, already behind the eight-ball because of who his father is and what his father wants to do to him, who manages to dig himself in deeper by playing in an ill-advised poker game. Twenty-one years later, the debts are coming due, and it’s not just him who has to pay the price, but his friends and family, as well. Not having anything left to lose, he travels back to the source of the evil reaching out to claim his life – Las Vegas – to try and find a kind of redemption.
Mixed up in there are the powers of the archetypes represented in the Tarot cards, the evil man lurking behind Mandelbrot equations, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, quantum probability, ancient Greek and Egyptian gods, body-swapping, evil Elvis impersonators, the ghost of Bugsy Siegel, and the friendliest hit man you could ever hope to meet.
It’s filled with desperate action, wild speculation, and a twist on history that does a lot to illuminate the reason things are the way they are. It charts a man’s heroic (and not-so-heroic, sometimes) attempts at redemption, seeking the love of a father who once tried to kill him.
It’s also got a couple of explosions and a spear gun battle under the waters of Lake Mead, lest you think it’s all about soul-searching and healing the child within.
One of the things I love most about Tim Powers’s books is the way he weaves historical facts and personalities into them. I read an interview with him about the rules he used when writing the book Declare, all about Kim Philby and Noah’s Ark. I’m paraphrasing, here, but his rule was that he could not contradict an established fact – if there was a report that Philby was in Cairo on a certain day, then Philby would have to be in Cairo on that day in the novel. All the weirdness, conpsiracy, and mysticism had to be woven in and around the gaps, changing not the facts, but the meaning of the facts***.
This is showcased less in Last Call, as the only real historical figure to take a role is Bugsy Siegel, but it shows up a lot more in The Stress of Her Regard, featuring the Romantic poets, and Expiration Date, the sort-of sequel to Last Call that features such notable personages (or at least their ghosts) as Tom Edison and Harry Houdini.
Tim Powers’s novels have a sheer inventive genius about them that really appeals to me. The ideas are creative, solidly built into the background and structure of the novel, and hang together very believably. Beyond that, he has a clear, clean prose style that really appeals to me, avoiding overblown descriptions or purple prose. And his characters are deep, individual, and fascinating.
Having finished Last Call, I’m starting on Expiration Date. This will be followed by Earthquake Weather, which transforms the three books into a trilogy by tying together the first two books. The three books were published some time apart, and I’ve never read them back-to-back like this, having bought each when it was released.
That’s the down side to being a Tim Powers fan: the man does good work, but you never seem to get enough of it****.
Anyway, I see I need one more new book cited to round out the Amazon sidebar, so let’s end with The Drawing of the Dark, a Tim Powers novel about the siege of Vienna, the reborn King Arthur, a bunch of wandering vikings, and beer.
How can you top that for cool?
*Both very excellent books. You should read them. Now.
** This idea of obsession being necessary to transcend the mundane and take part in the mystical is one of the core tenets of the Unknown Armies RPG, which I had the tremendous good fortune to do some writing for. UA owes a considerable and acknowledge debt to the works of Tim Powers. It’s one of the reasons I love the game the way I do.
*** This is related, in a way, to what I said about reading with filters in this post here.
**** Not to sound ungrateful. I’m happy for what I can get. I’m just greedy for more.