Thursday, October 17, 2019

Earthquake Weather by Tim Powers

I’ve been a huge Tim Powers fan since I first read Last Call in 2008 (I’ve read that novel four more times since then). Whenever I try to talk people into reading that novel (which has been often), I start by telling them a Steven Wright joke: “Last night I stayed up late playing poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and eight people died.” I tell them to imagine that expanded into one of the tensest fantasy/horror thrillers they’ve ever read. That’s a reductionist view. It’s not just poker (or rather a game called Assumption) with tarot cards for incredibly high stakes, though it certainly is that. It’s also about the fisher king mythos transferred to California via jungian archetypes and Catholic sacraments. It’s about alcoholism. It’s about the founding and mythical underpinning of Las Vegas. It’s about probability. It’s about curing cancer. It’s a literalization of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland.  It’s about daddy issues. It’s about so many things that shouldn’t work together in one story. The plot concerns people jockeying to take the role of Fisher King from the current king who stole it from Bugsy Siegel. I’ve read nearly all of his novels over the years and they always contain so many ideas that it seems that they can’t possibly work, but they always do. Earthquake Weather is a sequel to Last Call, but it is also a sequel to Expiration Date. This latter has an equally complicated mythology, largely centered around the practice of eating ghosts to extend one’s life, chasing down the ghost of Thomas Edison who has possessed a boy, and seeking absolution.

Powers’ mythologies are complicated, to the point that in less disciplined hands, all the disparate elements could easily fall apart into an incomprehensible mess. He pulls it off every time, for my money (I’ve now read all of his novels, save his first two). In Earthquake Weather, he ups the difficulty level by finding a way to mesh two of those mythologies seamlessly into another great thriller. He plays fair too. Without retconning he makes it work. Powers is known for meticulous research. His novels take historical events as backdrop and plot. He doesn’t change details. He fills in the unknown elements with the fantastic, sometimes blurring into horror. Here he’s done the same with both actual history (one subplot deals with a particular breed of insect that was actually plaguing California vineyards around the time the book is set), and the fictional history recorded in the previous books. Last Call is among my 20 or so favorite books. I found Expiration Date somewhat less convincing, mainly due to the motivations of a couple of the characters. (That’s not to say I didn’t really love the book; I did). Earthquake Weather comes very close to the heights of Last Call. It’s an incredible work of supernatural fiction, and I have an extra level of appreciation for it because of degree of difficulty in combining the mythologies of Last Call and Expiration Date. That said, I think it would be very difficult to follow for someone who hadn’t read both those books. I won’t try to summarize the plot beyond saying that it involves the death of the man who won the mantle of Fisher King in Last Call and the attempts of characters from both novels and some new players trying to bring him back (or oppose that attempt). Arky Mavranos and Kootie Parganas are two indelible characters, and I appreciated having them working together in the same novel.

Powers does not concern himself with pushing an ideology in his work; he’s from the school of “write the book, and the ideology will take care of itself,” a stance I appreciate. That said, my quibbles with the books, especially Expiration Date, have mainly to do with motivations. I’m fully on board with a work examining people’s guilt and their coming to terms with that guilt and trying to find a way to atone. Sometimes, though, I feel like the specific things that some of the characters feel most guilty about are either slightly different than what I would say they should, or at least the way the guilt is expressed makes me question it a little. I chalk this up to my not sharing Powers’ Catholic faith.

But that’s a quibble. The books are not in any way didactic. Powers’ prose is excellent and straightforward. He has (probably) the most thought out plot mechanics of any writer I’m familiar with. As complicated as his mythologies are, if you pay attention as you read you will be able to understand them. He evokes the mythic as well as anyone I know. I differ with him ideologically, but I find that no reason in that to deny myself some of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.

Highly Recommended (but not before reading Last Call and Expiration Date).

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