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The Devil is Dead
by R.A. Lafferty 1971

Review by Steve Hooley   —   May 1, 2002


The author of this lost book calls it a "do-it-yourself thriller or nightmare. Its present order is only the way it comes in the box. Arrange it as you will." The puzzle pieces include the Devil himself as well as "an ogress, and a mermaid, passing as ordinary women to the sightless." There's a millionaire and a hobo called Finnegan, and a trip around the world. There's a body buried in the sand, and a mystery with it. There are doppelgangers and fetches, and almost-irrelevant stories told around campfires. There's a plot to drown the world in blood, a horrifying resurgence of an ancient master race -

No, maybe not. Shake the box again and look. This time it's a weirdly-charming picaresque novel of innocence and experience layered onto a mystery seething with vivid characterizations and magical realism. Shake again. The exact latitude and longitude of Paradise: go there and see. Shake. The exact name written upon the Devil's tombstone.

R. A. Lafferty was the past master of word magic. He usually hit you fast, with a short story, and ran off snickering while you reeled around sputtering "But that would mean . . . oh, NO!" This is practically DUNE-sized for him at 224 pages in paperback, but he doesn't waste a word. By the end of the first page you are trying to keep from checking your own wrist for the mark of the polypus, the false octopus that has either seven tentacles or nine. Even if you put the book down now, the contents will eventually make themselves known to you in the same clairvoyant way that Finnegan read the unopened letter from his late double, Dopey the seaman.

Can I be more specific? No. As I said, Lafferty doesn't waste a word, and it's hard to describe this without spoiling it. Hidden among us are the other people, but some of them are the right kind of other people. You may know Finnegan yourself, in one of his upper lives. You may have gotten drunk in some of these same bars, and been told already the story of the furtive little man. You may even know enough to carry a ta'a nut in your pocket.

If you like action-packed, logical adventure stories . . . run away. This will fray your nerves and give you the screaming fidgets. Later you will realize it actually was a tightly-plotted adventure story, with lots of digressions and fishing trips and clambakes and tall stories in its path. Even Mr. X is in this book, along with a mysterious inexorable left-footed assassin. And if the ending worries you, read it through again: Doll knew it all along, and she gets the last word in for the ordinary people. You and I are not helpless against the Other Kind of People; in fact they may be blindly chasing each other.

R.A. Lafferty died last month. No more stories from him.

Contact Steve at hooleyss@gsaix2.cc.gasou.edu

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