King of Cups: Rereading Tim Powers’s “Last Call”

Fantasist (and mackerel-snapper, if we’re counting) Tim Powers does high-concept tales in which hard-bitten characters struggle to learn to love one another and escape complex, unforgiving systems of magical dark forces. Last Call is probably my second-favorite of his fantasies of salvage–the greatest is Declare aka “the one where demons fight the Cold War”–and as I reread it I loved it even more than I did the first time around. The high concept this time is “war for succession among the gods of the tarot, in Las Vegas.” Here are some notes on this moving, mystical fantasy.

* It’s seasonally-appropriate! I have this running mental list of Unexpected Christmas Movies (e.g. Brazil) but I never thought to make a list of Unexpected Holy Week Novels. Last Call takes place mostly over Holy Week and climaxes on Good Friday; it’s not a programmatic “Christian fantasy” but a subtle reflection on seasonally-fitting themes of surrender and resurrection.

* It includes one of the most powerful portrayals of the eros of alcoholism that I’ve ever encountered. A sort of bridal mysticism of thanatostalgia.

* It has many of his recurring themes: Parents who seek to consume and use their children come up again in Hide Me Among the Graves; the patterns hidden in chaos are in Declare (Powers is a great novelist of delusion of reference…); the terrible, decades-long consequences of seemingly minor misdeeds are in The Stress of Her Regard, Hide Me Among the Graves, and probably too many others to count. Found families, humbled men, wise fools, the acceptance of justice and the need for mercy: If you like this stuff, you may already be a Powers fan.

* Our hero, bereaved alcoholic quasi-drifter Scott Crane, is much more trusting and obedient than the vast majority of protagonists. I was struck by how submissive he is, without ever seeming wishy-washy or spineless. His relationship with his estranged foster father is immensely touching because of the trust Scott has for the man.

* Last Call does a beautiful job of navigating the tension I described in that post nobody liked, “Sparrows and Fathers,” between the poetic richness of biological fatherhood and the human need for enacted fatherhood. An immensely sympathetic character’s car sports the bumper sticker, ONE NUCLEAR FAMILY CAN RUIN YOUR WHOLE DAY, and as I said above, found and created families are a major theme of the book. And yet the plot hinges on the symbolic importance of the flesh, and the obligations created by “mere” physical parenthood.

* Man, Tim Powers writes punishment and humiliation well. To say more would probably be spoilerous, but I truly loved how humiliation worked into the plot mechanics here.

And while I was reading this, I was also doing one of my epic Listening to the Mountain Goats streaks. So I found you a song. If they ever make a movie of Last Call this might be a good opening-credits choice:

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