This is actually the first book in Tim Powers so-called Fault Lines trilogy. The next books in the trilogy are Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather.
An added reminder that Raw Feeds are full of spoilers.
Raw Feed (2002): Last Call, Tim Powers, 1992.
There are few obvious links between the novels. Neal Obstadt shows up in both books as sort of an occult underworld figure. In Expiration Date, he is a dealer and user of ghosts to inhale. Here he is one of those hunting for protagonist Scott Crane. The issue of ghosts does show up here with the creepy ghost of Susan Crane, Scott Crane’s dead wife who is not only a creepy ghost hanging around his house and later haunting him but also a representative of Death who tries to lure Scott into giving up and dying rather than struggling to reclaim his soul.
Another connection is not evident from reading the book but is mentioned in Earthquake Weather (which I’ve read approximately 70 pages of before writing this). The “Mexican” who gives Kootie a ride and five dollars in Expiration Date is none other than Archimedes Mavranos from Last Call (which takes place around Easter 1989 as to Expiration Date‘s setting of Halloween 1992).
Both books exhibit what seems to be Powers’ characteristic blend of history, science, literary allusion, and myth, all in the service of a secret history plot wedged into the interstices of historical fact. Here Powers’ blends the history and present of Las Vegas, chaos physics, Arthurian lore, the legend of the Fisher King, pagan myth, gambling, and Tarot lore to produce a compelling plot.
On one level, the plot is similar to Expiration Date: a bunch of people engage in violent machinations to attain power or persons who represents great power. That pursued person or person has to take steps to save their life and extricate themselves from danger.
The specifics: protagonist Scott Crane is pursued by the soul of his father so his father can possess Crane’s soul, which he won in a game of Assumption (a peculiar card game played with a Tarot deck where hands are “married” and “conceived”) and others seek to kill him because they suspect he will try to replace the current Fisher King, his father; in Expiration Date, Kootie is sought because he’s inhaled Edison’s last breath. Here Scott’s adopted sister, Diana, is also pursued. In Expiration Date, deLarava pursues Pete Sullivan because he can help her get Apie Sullivan’s ghost.
Last Call, though, is a grimmer book; it’s characters more desperate, its plot more violent. Scott’s adopted father, Ozzie, dies. Indeed, death and onstage violence is more integral to this plot than that of Expiration Date.
The book opens with Scott’s biological father trying to prepare his body as a repository for his consciousness (as his brother has already been used) and relates how he’s wounded “in the thigh” by his wife and how he’s killed the old Fisher King, Bugsy Siegel, founder of Las Vegas. (Here a Perilous Castle in a wasteland and a nexus for the gods of randomness and chance.) Human sacrifice is even an integral part of the heroes as well as the villains. (The gods, it seems, are probably not satisfied with the fake sacrifices of mannequins in Doom Town, the atomic bomb testing site outside of town). Each must kill, or facilitate, the death of someone to achieve their ends. (And Powers does a nice job showing how reluctant Scott, Mavranos, and Ozzie are to shed blood.)
Each book has relatively short sections of dialogue (though some of the short exchanges in Last Call, where various people suggest to Scott that he’d just be better off killing himself before father Georges Leon assumes his body, are pretty creepy and memorable). In both cases, the dialogue is sometimes built around literary works — Lewis Carroll’s Alice books in Expiration Date and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, Tennyson’s “Idyls of the King”, and Ben Jonson’s Volpone, amongst others (as well as several popular songs from the Andrew Sisters to the Eagles) in Last Call. (Powers is a friend with Dean Koontz, and the “weirdly sociable” and murderous Al Funo reminded me of the government villain in the, I believe, later Dark Rivers of the Heart by Koontz.)
As to desperation, Scott Crane is out to save his soul and body (bodyswitching, as a Tim Powers website noted, is a prime thematic preoccupation of Powers); Diana Crane must save her children; Mavranos (one of my very favorite characters — I was very glad he was cured of his cancer) seeks a cure for his illness. It is that increased level of violence and desperation and the presentation of the literal Vegas and its mythic underpinnings (including the giant statues outside of the casinos representing archetypes come to life and threatening Diana Crane and Bernardette Dinh) which make this book more resonant and effective than the still good Expiration Date.
However, I think the presence of poker and the Tarota is what really makes this book more memorable. English, particularly American English, is full of idioms derived from poker. Tarot cards are fascinating, even to a non-mystic like me, for their relation to regular playing cards and their fascinating, often macabre pictures standing in for various elements of the human experience, their combination a colorful, allegedly prophetic version of solitaire.
And I want to read more about the Tarot. I suspect most of the details Powers relates about it are correct. He does a good job with his factual research. He mentions, in passing, the myth the Studies and Operations Group used against the Viet Cong: the liberator Le Loi and his legendary struggles against Chinese invaders. I also liked his details about the life of a professional poker player like Ozzie and Scott.
Both Expiration Date and Last Call are full of plot coincidences and narrow misses and portentous chance meetings, but that’s how is should be in plots dealing with magic and fate. There are some interesting juxtapositions of plot. I find it very interesting that both books end with the assembly of families — and also heavily feature the destruction of families. At the end of Expiration Date, Peter Sullivan will marry Angelica Elizalde and the two will adopt Kootie. At the conclusion of Last Call, Diana and Scott marry and will adopt her children and, symbolically, Dinh.
Interestingly, both novels touch on incest. Diana notes that her marriage to Scott, which, as a child she always assumed would happen before Ozzie cut off contact with Scott after the latter lost his soul in a game of Assumption with Leon, is not really incestuous since they are Ozzie’s adopted children with different parents. Also, their marriage is somewhat fated when Scott becomes the Fisher King; indeed, for him to reign wisely (and what he will do with his power is covered vaguely though it seems that it will be restrained and good) he must be married. In Expiration Date, Sukie is incestuously attracted to brother Pete.
The Sullivan’s family is destroyed when their stepmother deLarava kills him (and much of the book is her trying to destroy his ghost). Crane’s father, Leon, tries to hijack his son’s body despite his affection for the boy. Mavranos and Angelica can be seen as similar aiding sidekicks to Scott Crane and Pete Sullivan respectively, though the parallel is not exact since Angelica marries Pete. (Mavranos is the archetype of a loyal friend. At one point, when he thinks his quest to find a zone where randomness undergoes a phase change in order, which he hopes will cure the randomness of his cancer, is doomed, he thinks about returning to his wife and kids but decides not to since he thinks they won’t love a man who would abandon a friend even if he dies doing it.)
Both novels feature confrontations with malevolent parents. Peter Sullivan confronts deLarava after he finds out she was his murderous stepmother. Scott Crane plays Assumption against his father, Leon, for a second time. In both cases, Sullivan and Crane refight old battles with new knowledge and resolve. Both feature protagonists haunted by the ghosts of lovers. For Sullivan, its sister Sukie with her incestuous attraction. For Crane, it is his dead wife, Susan.
Both books bring in scientific jargon to bolster their magic. In Expiration Date, it’s electromagnetism. Here, it’s chaos theory.
Both novels feature a whole world of magic and myth operating underneath contemporary reality. Last Call, except for the ultimate question of how the Cranes will use their power, ties up more loose ends as a self-contained novel though, presumably, both books will feed into Earthquake Weather. I did wonder whether Oliver was haunted by an archetype of a boy without a child or a ghost. The archetype option seemed to be the correct one.
I was also unclear as to exactly how Bugsy Siegel survived to do in Leon at novel’s end. I did like the Fat Man playing into the Green Knight myth, and, as a character, feeling the compulsion to avoid the physical dissolution following death. (He wants to be buried in an airtight, concrete vault so his atoms won’t mingle with the soil and being absorbed by organisms. He fears the Thin Man, death.) A very impressive novel both in its linking of so many disparate elements but also in its narrative power and memorable characters and dialogue.