Tim Powers is a writer whose development the reader has been able to track with certainty. A marked maturation is visible from his fledgling, early efforts that won over more for ideas than execution to his latest efforts which feature a writer aware and in control of the craft. 2016 a more productive year than usual for Powers, it has seen the publication of a major novel, Medusa’s Web, and in June the novella Down and Out in Purgatory (Subterranean).
Tom Holbrook is on a mission of revenge. The love of his life killed by her husband (a man Holbrook was formerly close with, so close they had tattoos done together), he scours the American West searching, gun at hand. A hardened man with purpose, when he finds the object of his revenge in a morgue, a wrench is thrown in the works. But only temporarily. Other, more rash means possible, revenge is still attainable for Holbrook, just not in this world, it seems.
A story whose premise often threatens to slip too far from grasp, Powers reins Down and Out in Purgatory back in every time. Starting with Yeats’ “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” the story then moves into the gray, human area behind heroism and virtue. Transcending (at least mostly) the love triangle character base (i.e., the object of revenge, the woman in the middle, and the revenger), Powers avoids a trite ending in favor of a fitting one, proving his talents have only strengthened in time.
Down and Out in Purgatory is straight-forward, great storytelling. Powers honing his creation down to its essentials, Holbrook’s search and ultimate fate suit perfectly his character, reminding the reader of the note on which the story began. Powers may not write many novellas, but when he does these days, they can be as good as his books, and in the case of his early novels, even better. Powers far from over, it will be interesting to see what further subtleties he adds to his writing.