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Book of the Mouth


By John Clute

T his is not an entry-level novel. The Haunted Air does not introduce us to F. Paul Wilson's continuing New York urban vigilante, Repairman Jack—that task was undertaken as long ago as 1984 in The Tomb—nor does it bring his long flirtation with apocalypse to anything like climax, a task which may not be undertaken for a really long while yet, depending on the series' sustained marketability, and on the ingenuity of the author. Ingenuity there certainly is. Wilson's handling of the mortmain no man's land of mid-series is fully professional. The Haunted Air, though all too visibly a cud-chewer, does manage to keep its pages turning in our hands. This is something good to say.

After The Tomb, Wilson left his Repairman alone for quite a few years, except for a few stories, though the structure of a potential series was laid down pretty clearly. As far as the official world of 1984 is concerned, Jack is an invisible man. He has no tax ID, no credit card, no bank, he pays nothing to any form of government for anything. He is a daredevil (at least in his earlier years—later volumes of the series age Jack at a rate reasonably congruent with the passing of real time), an athlete, a fighter, a man whose easy access to his inner rage gives him, at times, a more or less supernatural competence in his reckless forays against evil, up and down the streets of New York.

And it is just as well that this well of chthonic righteousness is on ready tap, because—as we enter the world of the later novels, Legacies (1998), Conspiracies (1999), All the Rage (2000) and Hosts (2001)—it begins to come clear that our Repairman is not only a Jack Be Nimble with a Bee in his Bonnet, but a Childe, a solitary samurai locked into some sort of dark quest. Moreover, by the time we enter The Haunted Air, we begin to realize that Jack is a recruited Childe; that he no longer reminds us of Travis McGee sans joie de vivre; that he is not alone, any more than Travis is after he meets Meyer (Abe Grossman in this novel is Meyer Lite); that the figure who now comes to mind, out of the Cauldron of Story all 21st-century authors trawl, is Frank Black (from Chris Carter's still-born TV series Millennium), the obsessive haunted operative-against-evil whose real employers may not even be human, and whose real role seems to be that of combating on humanity's behalf the unhuman purveyors of ultimate apocalypse. Maybe. Carter's suicidally digressive way with the storyline of the series ensured its hasty cancellation, and no one now knows for sure what might have happened.

A repairman for the next apocalypse

No reader can yet know for sure about Repairman Jack's final employers, either, though Wilson shows every sign of having a better grasp on his future course than Chris Carter ever did; and The Haunted Air does move tentatively toward fitting Jack into a larger-than-mundane cosmology. About halfway through, Jack tries to give Lyle—an about-to-reform fake medium whom we have not met before this book, and who is almost certain to do sidekick stuff in future volumes—some sense of the Big Picture:

"I've had the Otherness explained to me a couple of times" [explains Jack] "and I still don't have a handle on it. Apparently two vast, unimaginably complex cosmic forces have been at war forever. The prize in this war is all existence—this world, other realities, other dimensions, everything is at stake. Before you start feeling important, I was told that our corner of reality is just a tiny piece of that whole. ... But if one side's going to be the winner, it's got to take all the marbles. Even our little backwater."

"Don't tell me," Lyle said, his tone bordering on disdain. "One of these forces is
Good and one is Eeeevil."

"Not quite. That would make it easy. The way I understand it, the side that has our reality in its pocket is not good or evil, it's just there. The most we can expect from it is benign neglect."

"'Thou shalt not have false gods before me,'" Charlie intoned.

We will return in a moment to Charlie, Lyle's obstructionist born-again brother, because Charlie is symptomatic of this novel's ultimate failure; and we can pass pretty quickly over the "two vast, unimaginably complex cosmic forces ... at war forever," a phrase which rings echoes in the Cauldron of Story from Manichee to Eddore, because what Jack is describing here is not really a cosmology but a playing field, a distinction conspicuously flagged to the reader by the cartoon diction of the quote. What is central here to our understanding of how to read The Haunted Air is that everything is to play for, but not yet.

So (as I said at the beginning) we are in medias res country. The story itself—which must hint at advances in the overall saga while holding back from any clear resolution—is a cleverly woven, intricate, three-strand dovetailer whose implausibilities are explained, fairly often, as a consequence of the fact (which Jack learns from a stray seer) that the War in Heaven is beginning to bite and that there are, therefore, no longer any coincidences in his world. Storyline 1: Lyle, under threat from some other fake mediums because of his success, hires Repairman Jack to put the frighteners on them; Jack accomplishes this with comic ease. Storyline 2: Lyle's new house in Astoria is haunted by the ghost of a young child named Tara Portman, who had been ritually murdered years earlier (though not sexually abused) by a coven of men who think (we are not told whether or not they're right) they gain immortality by eating bits of a living heart once a year at the new moon; Ja! ck propitiates the Tara ghost by giving her the head of the coven in exchange for Gia, his pregnant girlfriend, who has very stupidly gotten trapped inside the Bad Place Tara has occupied in her famishment; he is able to make the trade because the villain is in fact the same villain that he has been separately hired (there are no coincidences) to track in Storyline 3. This villain, an antiques and curios dealer, believes himself to be hundreds of years old (and may be), and we are given to believe that he owes his special knowledge of stuff to some sort of exposure to the vast, unimaginably complex cosmic force which opposes the Otherness.

An annoying army of second bananas

All this is fine enough, though it treads water. The problem with A Haunted Air lies in its cast. Jack is self-consciously a man of the soil of New York—which means, in Wilson's hands, that he is an opinionated boor. He argues at some length his conviction that men who accessorize have betrayed the genuine manhood of men who were drafted to fight in Korea. He sees corruption (of this sort) everywhere. He is totally ignorant of the painter Mondrian, though any civilized person who has read a Sunday supplement knows what a Mondrian looks like, and his girlfriend/partner, the insufferable Gia, is a successful commercial artist whose visual vocabulary necessarily (she sells work to a variety of sources in Manhattan) sucks Mondrian to the dregs for design fixes. But Jack, mumpsimus crank that he is, troubles us less than Gia herself.

(But first a word about Charlie the Born-Again. It is not that Wilson approves his unctuous triumphalism—he is the kind of fundamentalist who marches against Harry Potter movies without having seen them—but that he allows Charlie to clog the novel whenever he is on stage, which is lots. The problem with Charlie, and with all too many of the remaining members of the cast of this very American book, is that for him it is far more important to treat his selfhood and a belief he might hold as the same thing, than it is to ascertain the truth of that belief. Charlie, like too many Americans, takes argument personally; to disagree with some fatuous idea he comes up with, as Lyle discovers to his cost, is to assault his very soul. His presence in The Haunted Air is, therefore, saddening. Wilson portrays him in terms which make clear his sense that Charlie is typical of modern American life, but this observation is given too much stage room in a tale designe! d to take us away from ourselves.)

The Insufferable Gia, who has been in the series from the first, is the kind of vegetarian who doesn't let others eat meat in her presence. Her interior decor, and the decor of her mind, reek of "poshlust," Vladimir Nabokov's inspired englishing of the Russian poshlost, a term of wide application, but which here can be used roughly to define the ersatz style and thought patterns of the unlettered (that is, most of us) who purchase—and who relentlessly misquote—the culture they cannot themselves generate. Gia discovers that she is pregnant, which means (since she will not countenance Jack living with her unless they are married) that her partner (she refuses to use that honorable term to describe their relationship) will have to abandon his former invisible life entirely, in order to become a registered citizen of America and marry her (she boasts of her "archaic mindset" about marriage) and raise their child decently. (That, after decades of underco! ver life, Jack has not created a few surface identities and legal covers for himself and his money is less a failure of through-thinking on Wilson's part, though it veers in that direction, than a signal that the Repairman Jack novels are essentially about grunts in the eventual War in Heaven, like Frank Black, and not about Savant Warriors who Know the Score, like, say, the Batman.)

On the street, Gia is stopped by a TV team and asked her opinion of child molesters. She suggests at length that they should be tortured to death very slowly (in the end, poshlust always defaults to this sort of anomic, Lonely Crowd bloodlust, for poshlust and bloodlust are different masks of the same hysteria-stiffened, terror-ripped 20th-century face), an utterance which excites the villains of the novel to search for her 8-year-old daughter so they can show her what for. When Jack asks her to stay safe at home (there are no coincidences) she immediately hightails it to the Bad Place in Astoria, where she and the few cells of her foetus are captured by Tara, who wants an unborn child to suckle. And after all of this, Gia survives the novel, ready to badger her way through the next one.

At novel's close, various villains are either dead or due to be tortured slowly to death by a group of vigilante guys of Jack's acquaintance who just hate pedophiles (there are, in fact, no pedophiles in the novel, except for one minor character who wants to be one, and who is already dead anyway, but hey). Jack has not yet worked out how to become legal in order to placate the poshlusty inciter of vigilantes who is about to bear his child, so what there's a War in Heaven like imminent. Jack better find a Box and become a boxman, or Gia will stamp her little foot.

In the end, it's sad. The thought of having to listen to Gia, and to some of the other second-rate voice-ons who hamper A Haunted Air, is almost enough to keep one away from Repairman Jack and his grunt role in Apocalypse to come. But so much of the book is fun, the dovetailing of the plots is hugely enjoyable to follow, Wilson is a workman of high accomplishment, a writer certainly capable of making the War in Heaven storyable. So here's the big question: Can F. Paul Wilson shut up the mouths of his cast? If the answer is no, the sequel is going to be tossed, at least by me. If yes, we should all catch his next train toward hell.


John Clute is a writer, editor, critic and scholar of science fiction. He is the author of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia and co-editor of both The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Omni, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and other places too numerous to list; much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986 and Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays.




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