Saturday, March 16, 2013

Last Call

     Okay, so the rundown is as follows: I love this book. I love it unabashedly, I love it with all my heart and soul, it is hands down one of the best books I have read. The characters, dialogue, and the way history and actual mysticism and mathematics are woven into the fiction all work, and even anyone who isn't well-versed in crazy historical minutiae can enjoy the story of a man storming Las Vegas to claim back his soul and his birthright with no difficulty. Add to this the descriptions, some genuine moments of dread and well-conveyed paranoia from the characters, and a sense of danger that never really lets up, and you have a book well worth reading.

       The downside is, there are a few sequences that never really pay off, and sometimes there is just too much going on sometimes on even one page to keep up with. Also, the main character spends a whole section-- possibly two-- of the book doing some really stupid things against the advice of people who clearly know more about this stuff than he does. But it serves as some good character development, and helps create a line between Scott's self-destructive urges and his need to finish his quest. All in all, the book is worth a read, possibly a buy, and a ride you won't regret taking.

"No one who isn't blind should ever read tarot cards. A surgeon doesn't use a scalpel with two blades on it, one for the handle, does he? Shit."
- Spider Joe

"Maybe, Crane thought, if you use the real high-octane stuff, you don't need to dress it up."

             I suppose it's a nice coincidence (or, since the book doesn't believe in coincidences, was it...) that I found this book the first time purely at random. I'd been wandering through the fiction section of the Maplewood Memorial Library, and I found a book with an odd tarot motif on the cover. Intrigued but wary, I read the synopsis and about halfway through the first paragraph, I was on my way to the checkout desk with the book under my arm. It didn't take much more convincing than that. I started it on the way home from the library, and read it in every moment I could steal away after that. It just so happened that at the same time I started Last Call, I was reading a lot of crazy books on mysticism and theories on reality, which also clicked right into place. 

          And it is wonderful. If ever anyone asked me if there were a book I wish I could have written, I'd simply point to Last Call and say "that one". It's simple in its language, complex in its themes, and each line contains a plethora of contexts without being confusing. It throws a dizzying array of concepts both real and imagined at the wall and makes them stick there through sheer force of will and a desire never to let things slow down even for an instant. This is one of my favorite books, and while not in the top five, it is a book I come back to time and again because each reading unlocks something new, and each time I read it, I look for something else. Where Pynchon* attempts to be dense by overloading his book with concepts, Powers is able to do the same thing with a few off-the-cuff references and hints at a deeper world beneath the surface of the one we inhabit.

             Last Call is the story of Scott Crane, a one-eyed former poker player. In his later years, Scott lives a very quiet life...hiding from his neighbors, pretending to his friends that his wife isn't dead, and working a small-time job as a waiter. He's surrounded by weird coincidences he mostly ignores: Animals fall dead around his house, discarded bits of food land in geometric patterns, and his next-door neighbor is a terminally-ill savant who worships chaos and randomness. But one day, the bills Scott's been avoiding finally come due, and he has to take up the cards and chips again to make a little extra cash to pay everyone off.

And then things get weird.

              By playing cards, Scott puts some very interested parties on his tail...parties who want to see him dead or worse, parties who have existed almost ceaselessly since they found out how to manipulate seemingly-random factors and bend them to their will. And Scott isn't feeling too good, himself. He finds himself drunkenly rambling about mathematicians and his old life. All of this has something to do with a game Scott won on Lake Mead in the 1960s (a game played with tarot cards), but damned if he could figure out what it is. The only thing Scott is sure of is that he needs a lot of help and that he has to find a way to stop whatever it is. So Scott, his savant neighbor Archimedes, and his adopted father set off for Las Vegas in an attempt to stave things off. Soon they are swept up into a massive competition involving Egyptian gods, tarot cards, random coincidences, and the opportunity to become the king of the world. That is, if they survive the serial killer, gangsters, power-mad gamblers, and mystical forces that all want to see Scott become their puppet. 

           The best part of the book is just how much it manages to cram in. The scope of the story begins with the death of Bugsy Siegel and continues up through the nineties, but it never feels particularly dense. Details are revealed when relevant and some things aren't explained in great detail, but the important details are there. Even better, some of the details are wrong, as they're being interpreted by people who've only heard this stuff colloquially. Every line has an interesting concept, every paragraph makes it work. There's an amazing degree of world-building in the book, and it all comes across naturally from the protagonists. In comparison to high fantasy novels where the world building involves paragraph after paragraph of exposition, the fact that Powers manages to show without having to tell and tell and tell is refreshing. 

              Another part of the book is the dialogue. The three protagonists (Scott, Ozzie, and Mavranos) have wonderful chemistry, making the book seem like a darker version of a road trip to visit family and hang out in Vegas for a weekend. It's effective in that I could even see and hear the characters. The villains have natural dialogue and behavior, as well, making them while not human, a little less like faceless shadowy forces. They get angry, they make mistakes, and while they're operating from a position of strength, seeing them get out of depth gives the scale of the conflict its necessary parameters. But the plain dialogue is definitely part of the charm of the book...the characters even snark about the flowery language in the allusions they use. 

               And finally, the scale is big. Really big. Without giving too much away, the contest is just the tip of a very big iceberg below the surface. But it never feels like it's too immense to comprehend, like the people involved in it are too small. Powers manages to keep a tight control over the narrative, to make it about the characters without getting lost in the narrative. I like it when a gods-and-monsters plotline gets it right, and with its mythology, lore about probability, and gangster allusions, Last Call does it almost too well. 

                The book is not, however, perfect. A lot of sections tend to end in bizarre ways, and occasionally just stop. The character of Dondi Snayheever is important, but doesn't immediately seem to fit in**. There's also a very creepy subtext in that it seems like brother and sister pairs are able to Assume the throne and win the contest-- as archetypical King and Queen, or husband and wife. Which fits the mythological context, but is damned creepy.

               But these are minor nitpicks. This book is well worth the price of admission, the characters are rich, the setting is full without being exposition-heavy, and overall the entire thing is brilliant. Buy this book. Get it out from the library first if you must, but if you do not read this book, you are doing yourself a massive disservice.

And now, I leave you with this:

"I stayed up all night playing poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died." - Steven Wright

- Zodiac by Neal Stephenson
- Down Town by Vido Polikarpus and Tappan King
- Coverage of ZenKaiKon, hopefully this time with me remembering to take pictures and not ramble so all-fired much
- Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
- Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon
- Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon***

* Third time I've referenced Pynchon without actually reviewing a Pynchon book. Don't worry, ladies and gentlemen. I have a copy of Against the Day with a bookmark in it sitting right near my hand...
**I didn't get what he was doing there until the second time I read the book through. Poor guy. Pooor guy.
***SEE? SEE? I told you I was gonna get there eventually.

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