While finishing with The Stand, the climax of which takes place in a haunting, demonic ghost town version of Las Vegas, I had to struggle not to compare King's version of bad magic in Sin City to Tim Powers' in Last Call, one of my all-time favorite novels. And the comparison was totally unfair of me to make, because as far as I'm concerned, Tim Powers is the sine qua non of making the ordinary strange, and the strange ordinary, and nowhere has he to date done it better than in this bizarrely awesome novel, in which the archetypes of the Tarot meet the warty fat man in the famous Mandelbrot fractal and Bugsy Siegel was once the Fisher King of the American West.
And it all happens because of poker. Well, poker and a special kind of demented hunger for power, the latter satisfied in an exceedingly strange way by means of an extremely strange version of the former. As in a poker game played with an exceptionally powerful Tarot deck. If you get a full house in this game, you don't kill people a la Steven Wright, but you do risk losing your immortal soul, or at least your body; you risk becoming a new host for an evil magician type who is doing his damndest not only to become the new Fisher King, but to stay king forever. Yowza.
Our hero is an aging beery bum of a semi-professional poker player, adopted by a poker legend as a young child after being deposited, Moses-like, in a trailered boat by a doomed mother frantic to escape her terrifying husband. Scott "Scarecrow" Crane is literally and physically scarred by this barely-remembered childhood trauma even before he is manipulated into joining a certain game played with a certain deck under the aegis of a certain mysteriously powerful someone who has been desperately seeking a way to become a metaphysical parent since he was thwarted in being a real one...
The dual nature of the relationship between our man Crane and the evil magician Georges Leon is the first of many neat parallels with the dual Fisher King/Wounded King motif in Arthurian legend, and is just one of the many delights awaiting the literary nerd, the student of nature and human nature, the math and probability geek, the gambling aficionado, the archetypal psychology fan. Powers' magical system, developed here and revisited in later semi-sequels/sidequels (Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather now marketed after the fact with Last Call as a trilogy called "Fault Lines") is the most compellingly believable I've ever encountered, logical and thoroughly imagined and plausible to the point where to this day if I happen to see people playing cards, I catch myself watching how cigarette smoke billows across the table or levels in drinks tilt or don't tilt, as clues to how the game is going, what the stakes might be, who is going to win -- and how all of this might somehow predict the future. And we won't even talk about what I think of a certain mathematical set, which gives me the creeps to this day.
And oh, the characters. Especially the villains, of whom there are many, in a stunning variety. Al Funo, the social maladroit who thinks he's some kind of major smooth operator, whom Powers imbues with stunning creepiness, banal phrase by banal phrase. Ray-Joe Pogue, resplendent in Elvis gear (hey, this is Vegas, baby) and the Amino Acids (who else but Tim Powers could make a bunch of guys in El Caminos scary?). Vaughan Trumbill, the illustrated fat man with the world's weirdest case of Renfield syndrome.* Dondi Snayheever, raised in a series of Skinner boxes to become the world's greatest poker player, abused into becoming a demented psychic dowsing rod instead. And then there's the bad king, Georges Leon himself, tapped into all of the godlike power this archetypal kingship offers, using it only to prolong his life and keep swapping.
What really sells this novel, though, is the magic, rendered by Powers as a precise set of analogy and correspondence between will and result. It's consistent, powerful and, unlike what we usually see in the urban fantasy genre (I've argued elsewhere that Powers was writing urban fantasy before urban fantasy was a thing), contemporary, even as it also hooks into the good old Jungian archetypes represented by the Tarot and Arthurian legend. These are not people adhering to the rituals and rites found in some dusty 500 year old spell book; there is creativity and cleverness in what they do as a result of observing and learning and, OMG, thinking for themselves. No wise old man is handing out quests here. Hooray!
Since I last read this book, I got to visit Hoover Dam, where one of the climactic scenes of the novel takes place (just before Holy Week, yet, which is next week as I dictate these lines). So of course I shivered, looking out at Lake Mead and wondering if maybe Bugsy Siegel's head wasn't down in the depths somewhere. I watched the other visitors for telltale herky-jerky movements. I prayed I wouldn't see an Elvis. Even though I knew Diana had tamed the water.
Happy Easter, everybody!
I swear all of that will make sense if you read the book. All of that and more.
*There's an illustration by the brilliant J.T. Potter of him as the Mandelbrot Man in the deluxe hardcover edition that will scare the crap out of you.