Tim Powers's Last Call: a mind-altering journey into superstition, Vegas style

I just got through re-reading Tim Power's World Fantasy Award-winning 1996 novel Last Call, which is truly one of the triumphs of modern fantasy literature. Powers, one of Philip K Dick's three proteges (the others are James Blaylock and KW Jeter), is a tremendous writer, and his whole catalog deserves your attention, but even against the field of standout Powers novels, Last Call stands out further.

Last Call's premise, at its core, is that Bugsy Siegel built Las Vegas in order to become a living avatar of the Fisher King, but that he was prevented by doing this when a French mystic named Georges Leon assassinated him, stole his head from the morgue, tossed it into Lake Mead, and set about turning his sons into mindless soldiers in his mystic army by conducting dark rituals involving a handpainted Tarot deck that could drive you mad.

One of Leon's sons survives, though he loses his eye to his father's violence, and his dying mother smuggles him away from his father and tosses him, blindly, over the transom of a passing yacht on a trailer. He is found by a professional gambler, Ozzie Crane, who raises Scott as his foster son, and later adopts another girl, Diana, and raises her as his foster sister. From Ozzie, Scott learns of the gambler's mysticisms and superstitions: fold out your hand when the smoke gathers in the middle of the table or the drinks in the glass start to sit off-level, lest you buy or sell more than what's in the pot. Twenty years later, Scott -- now a professional gambler -- ignores Ozzie's pleas to stay clear of a game played on a houseboat on Lake Mead ("You want to play on tame water? Are you crazy?") and finds himself playing a queer sort of poker with 13 players and a deck of Tarot cards, playing (he later learns) against his own biological father, who has taken over the body of the game's host, and who is using the game to steal the bodies of more people so that he can attain true immortality.

This is a book that swirls with mysticism and resonances: everyday superstition, Sumerian and Egyptian religious doctrine, the Tarot and Carl Jung's archetypes, and the Arthurian mythos. Powers is clearly in some way the spiritual son of Philip K Dick (he certainly tells some pretty awesomely hilarious and terrifying stories about being Dick's confidante, driver, helper, and rescuer) and he's got Dick's knack for imagining catastrophically superstitious worlds where you're never sure who is the madman and who is the sage. He's also got Dick's flair for the bizarre, the sense that he's tapped into something very deep in the lived human experience of weird. But Powers is an infinitely better writer than Dick ever was: better at plot, characters and dialog.

Last Call is the first of three loosely joined books, the next two being Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather, and all three are brilliant in their own way, but Last Call remains my favorite. I caught up with it again via the audiobook, which is available as a DRM-free audio CD read by Bronson Pinchot (who is a surprisingly good and subtle audiobook voice-actor).

Last Call

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