Friday, March 25, 2016

Review of Last Call by Tim Powers

A deck of playing cards is a mainstay of modern society.   For as ubiquitous as board games have become, playing cards are still the standby.  But we take them for granted—because it’s easy.  The numbers 2 through 10 are a universal aspect of existence with an obvious relationship.  King and queen also have an easily recognized relationship, and few question their place at the top.  The joker is, well, the joker—as crazy-wild as can be, and the ace is the ace: a lowly one or number one—trumping them all.  But the jack?  Who is he, and how did he get mixed in?  Why not a knight or vizier?  Seem more relevant.  And the one-eyed jack...  This is the legacy explored in Tim Power’s fantastical Last Call (1992).

Last Call is the story of Scott Crane (aka Scarecrow Smith), the one-eyed adoptee of one of the greatest poker players ever to drift through the US’s casinos and poker tournaments in the early 20 th century, a man named Ozzie Smith.  Ozzie a superstitious guy, he warns Scott against playing in a wide variety of strange situations, one of which is over water.  But a son doesn’t always listen to his father, especially aged sixteen, and Crane, intrigued by the stakes being offered on a house boat on Lake Mead, heads out for an evening of gambling.  Feeling he walked away a winner, it takes some time to discover just how, in fact, he was a loser.  Crane’s world slowly cracking at the edges, his life gains only greater and greater subjectivity as larger forces at play are revealed.  It seems one can hazard more than money in poker.

Ostensibly a novel about poker, Last Call reveals its interests to be more bound up in the history and mythology of playing cards, particularly their relationship with the tarot deck and the supernatural beyond.  Tarot nothing like toothy old gypsy women hovering over crystal balls, Powers takes the historical view, aligning the various assignations from the cards with Egyptian, Greek, and other powers that were (or if you want, be), then superimposing them over a good old fashioned gangster story set in Las Vegas.

Possessing many of the same idiosyncrasies, there are times Last Call feels like a novel in good friend James Blaylock’s so-called Christian trilogy—The Last Coin, The Paper Grail, and All the Bells on Earth.  Eccentric characters, occasionally esoteric dialogue, and hints and glimpses of a supernatural beyond (not to mention the novels were all published within the same time period), I wouldn’t be surprised if late night conversations over whiskey and cigars between the two served as inspiration.  

When it comes to poker, it seems there are two types of people in the world: those passionate about it, and those indifferent.  I consider myself strongly in league with the latter, but Powers makes things interesting.  I will not start my own Monday night table with the guys after reading Last Call, but the tension of the game is captured—something poker enthusiasts will undoubtedly suck up with a straw.  Walking the middle ground, Powers requires the reader to have a basic understanding of the idea of poker, all the while discreetly filling in any gaps with the complexities.  The card game central to the novel, it never outpaces other aspects of good storytelling, however.  When it comes to table time, quality is emphasized over quantity.

While I personally believe Powers would have been better off to let nature take its course in the climactic scene (i.e. a random deal instead of a fixed deal, which would have increased the suspense, not to mention better emulated a real poker game), I can’t complain.  The overall story is highly satisfactory, and it goes without saying, very original.  No other story I’ve ever read so successfully combines poker, Las Vega mafia lore, the imagery of t.s. eliot’s poetry, and tarot cards into a idiosyncratic, enjoyable plot.  We now know who the one-eyed jack is.

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