This week we continue our tour of Tim Powers’ works with his fifth novel, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace. Like his second novel, Epitaph in Rust, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace takes place in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, but a much more fully realized Los Angeles than in the earlier work.
Greg Rivas is a well-known musician in this future L.A., the originator and best known performer of a style of music called “pelican gunning” (a “pelican” is a lute-like instrument). And though this is less well-known, he is also a “redeemer”, what we would have called in the ’80’s a “deprogrammer”. For there’s a pernicious religious movement in Rivas’ L.A., the Jaybirds, so called because they follow a guru named Norton Jaybush. They offer peace and unity, and a “sacrament” that genuinely takes you out of yourself (and eventually destroys your mind). Rivas himself spent time a Jaybird when he was young, and pelican gunning is a refinement of a style of music he discovered would protect him from the effects of the Jaybird “sacrament”. Having escaped he went into business tracking down and “redeeming” Jaybirds, returning them to their loving families. After a last, nearly disastrous redemption, Rivas retired from that work and settled in to being a musician.
As the book begins Rivas is asked to perform one more redemption. He reluctantly agrees, and so we begin our tour of his desolated world, from Jaybush’s stronghold the Holy City of Irvine to Deviant’s Palace in Venice, a pleasure palace where patrons revel in their own destruction, eating the deformed and radioactive sea creatures from the Ellay-Ex Deep, and taking the strange drug Blood.
Remember how you used to go to bookstores, stalking books by a newly discovered author, hoping you’d find one you’d not seen before? Remember looking for the lists of titles in the front of the book and going hunting? You know, back before the Web made it easy to look up and order any book you wanted? That’s the mode I was in after reading The Anubis Gates, and unfortunately Powers’ first three books simply weren’t available in the average book store. (Yeah, I could have tried ordering them. But that was cheating. It was all about the thrill of the hunt in those days.)
So when Dinner at Deviant’s Palace was published (with a neat cover showing a Corvette being pulled by horses) I jumped on it and read it…with decreasing eagerness as the book went on. It simply wasn’t what I was looking for, not like The Anubis Gates, which was rich and whimsical and sinister by turns. It was sinister, certainly, but bleak, and I found it not much fun and hard to follow. I re-read it once after that, hoping that it had improved, but it hadn’t. And then I re-read it just recently as part of this Tour.
What I can say is that it’s a better book than I remembered, and that I didn’t have any trouble following it this time around. Certain scenes I vaguely remembered turned out to be much, much different than I remembered, and to happen at a different place in the story. The sense of existential dread I got from it and found so off-putting was much lessened this time around, the fruit, I think, of reading more carefully than I used to.
The book is inventive; the writing and description are good; there’s much more here to like than I had previously realized. And, alas, I still don’t like it much.