"Madam, I've just run over your cat and I'd like to replace it."
"I don't know...how good are you at catching mice?"
- Elizalde, to herself
As previously stated, I freaking love Tim Powers. And this is one of the books that did that to me. At the time I found it, I'd just finished Last Call and found this one on the "Leave a book, take a book" rack at one of the public places in town. The story sounded so engaging and the ideas were definitely ones I hadn't heard before, and it was Tim Powers to boot, so I started it, hoping it would grip me the way Last Call did and give me just as many reasons to love it. Annnnd...I was wrong. It wasn't completely the book's fault as much as it was the format. For some reason, I am completely incapable of reading mass-market paperbacks these days. I still do from time to time...you can't really avoid it these days, particularly in genre writing, but my preferred format is a nice-sized hardcover or trade paperback copy. It's the way the pages tend to slip while I'm reading and the spine bends too easy, I think.
But when I got a copy I could actually read, and got through the parts where I'd kept putting it down, I loved it. Maybe not as much as Last Call, but definitely more than Deviant's Palace. Powers has managed to take his own weird, somewhat gritty style and reliance on historical fact, meld it with a modern-day crime novel sensibility (I'll get to what kind later), and then let it run amok all over Los Angeles. Expiration Date is our world, more or less, but one with pragmatic supernatural rules, a certain sensibility to it. Ghosts are commonplace and can be bought and sold fairly easily. The more famous and the "purer" the ghost, the more in demand they are. And why are ghosts so in demand? So they can be inhaled. Yes, Expiration Date is a drug novel about people snorting ghosts. And I can't believe I just typed that with a straight face.
Expiration Date begins, though, with Koot Hoomie Parganas, whose parents are part of a rather strict Buddhist sect. Kootie, as he will be known for the rest of the book, is a young man who wants to run away from home. His parents treat him like a reincarnation of a dead religious leader, which means no meat, no real friends, and Kootie is tired of it. But in running away from home, he destroys a precious bust of Dante Aligheri, a bust with a rather important artifact that Kootie's parents were keeping from some very unsavory characters who want it for themselves. With his parents brutally (and I do mean brutally) murdered, Kootie sets off with this artifact (okay, it's the last breath of Thomas Alva Edison) into the world, trying to figure out exactly what the hell is going on. He is pursued by a one-armed amnesiac ghost trapper named Sherman Oaks, and at various times aided by a cast of other characters. The other three main leads are Pete, an electrician with certain latent psychic abilities (and a psychic mask of Harry Houdini), Shadroe, a ghost haunting his body to evade the main antagonist, and Doctor Elizalde a former psychologist whose brush with the supernatural destroyed her career. Together, they're afloat in plots they can never quite understand, trying to keep between their pursuers and their next fix.
The one major problem with the book is its focus. In having these protagonists and stories running around, you easily find that you like some better than others, and the worst of them is the stupid double-act that makes up the "Kootie and Edison" arc. Edison gets absorbed by the young man, you see, but not enough to be assimilated. So he shares Kootie's body as the two evade the violent and irrational Sherman Oaks. And it's dull. Pete's arc has the traditional "man on the run" story, Elizalde is trying to piece together what happened to her despite her being an avowed atheist, Shadroe is possessing his own body, and we get stuck with the kid for the brunt of the book. They have some good moments, of course, but overall, it feels like it should be leading somewhere, and it doesn't until two-thirds through.
Which isn't to say the book is bad at all. Powers exercises amazing control despite the "large sprawling cast" form being out of his usual purview, and each of the characters (including the villains) have their own motivations and reasons. It's all handled wonderfully, and comes to a climax that's well worth it and where more than a few plot twists are answered (Tim Powers never met a loose end he didn't want tied in a neat little bow), too, which is nice. Elements found at the beginning of the book come into play near the end, improbable escapes are had by all, and the story and theme fit almost as if they'd been designed for each other.
And the themes are death, the apocalypse, and addiction. I know, it's hard to have a happy ending with those things in there, but somehow, they manage to pull it off. Pete, Elizalde, and Kootie start to form a family structure somewhere near the end, there's a nice ironic fate for the villain, and things go swimmingly from there. Though...I really do have to wonder why there are all the apocalyptic overtones in the work, like the gigantic "lobster-quadrille" that beaches itself on the shore, or the fact that dead people are walking the earth to get inhaled by the living, another sign of the apocalypse. The dead walking around, not the inhaling thing.
Powers does a wonderful job with the spiritualist parts, too, as Thomas Edison and Harry Houdini actually were interested in the spirit world (which was the very reason Houdini went around debunking mediums-- he wasn't skeptical about the existence of spirits, he just wanted people to stop with all the fake claims and making money off of spirits), and they're used to fantastic effect. As usual, Powers has definitely done his research, and it shows in every last bit-- be it the constantly referencing the Queen Mary's history, or the flashbacks to Edison's past. There's definitely a command of the language and ideas here that makes the book well worthwhile.
But with all of these things, I can't recommend it completely. The first time I read it was in the prime of my Tim Powers infatuation, and looking upon it now, I see that may have clouded my judgement. Expiration Date is a fine book, yes, but not as original as it might seem. The plot is loose, but follows many of the conventions of a regular crime novel, where all the characters eventually come together and the ending has at least one gunfight. It hardly seems as tightly-woven as many of his other books, in particular Last Call, the companion piece and preceding volume to this one. Kootie is too annoying a main character to stick with for two-thirds of the book, and the other characters aren't featured enough to pick up the slack, leaving me with a feeling that this should really have been a different kind of book.
So in the end, yes, you should read Expiration Date, but please don't buy it. Pick it up from the library, read it over a weekend, and you'll find it enjoyable enough that it will leave a good impression. But please, instead, save your money for one of Powers' much better books, such as Three Days to Never, Last Call, or his other equally brilliant works (except for The Anubis Gates, but I'll get to that later). This is a good book, but not a great one.
Next week: We get even more conventional with The Neverending Story, a children's fantasy novel that is a lot darker and more German than one would think