Russell Madden
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It Mattered
Russell Madden
Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.
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Hardcover, $34.95
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Russell Madden




F. Paul Wilson. Harbingers. Gauntlet Press, 2006. $60.

While F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack certainly has enough jobs to occupy his time, there is another kind of "job" that is beginning to seem more apropos for this character. For anyone who has been following the recent RJ segments of the Adversary Cycle, "Job" with a capital "J," long-O, better describes this poor man's existence.

Over the course of this series, Jack has had one-damn-thing-after-another befall him and those closest to him. As a teenager, he lost his mother, killed on a highway by thugs tossing projectiles into traffic. In the last few books, in quick succession, he has lost his sister (whose funeral he could not even attend); his father (murdered in an airport massacre); and his brother (who vanished in RJ's place to satisfy the demands of a weird artifact).

Now an orphan and sans any close relatives, Jack has had to deal with threats to his fiancé, Gia, and her daughter, Vicky. As Harbingers begins, Gia is nearing delivery of Jack's own offspring, a pending event that has induced him to do what he vowed never to do: enter "normal" society with government-issued identification, tax obligations, and all the rest of the entangling tentacles of an ever-encroaching State.

Even this foray into "respectability," however, comes cloaked in typical RJ subterfuge. Through the intervention of his friend, Abe, proprietor of a most unusual sporting goods store, Jack is headed for Europe to return reborn as one "Mirko Abdic." This "fix-it" is necessary to forge the legal bonds with Gia, Vicky, and his coming baby that will "grant" him rights to care for any or all of them should the unthinkable happen to one of them.

With the Adversary and its malignant agent-on-Earth Rasalom maneuvering against the Ally for dominance over our small world, Jack's concern is anything but misplaced. Harbingers brings that point sharply home when Jack's reluctant agreement to help a patron of his favorite bar, Julio's, track down a missing fourteen-year-old niece leads RJ deeply into the meshes of the cosmic web that is deciding our world's fate.

Jack's run-ins with the mysterious Yeniceri and their black-eyed Oculus; his discovery of the true nature and purpose of the men who killed his father; his race to protect Gia and Vicky and his unborn child from an old danger; and his travels from the heat of Florida to the frigid waters of a Nantucket blizzard transform Harbingers into a hold-onto-your-hat adventure that keeps the reader turning in horrified fascination to learn what more could possibly happen to this man for whom there are "no more coincidences."

Harbingers clarifies as never before the operations of both the Adversary/Rasalom and the Ally. Jack knows that the Adversary thrives on chaos. Any reader who has read Nightworld will also recognize that before all is resolved, the Adversary will transform our planet more to its liking in its attempt to destroy what is precious to people. As Rasalom says, "The human mind is comforted by patterns, but I shall offer none." (p. 199)

But the shredding of reality contemplated by the Adversary makes the most random killings perpetrated by the Nazis seem as tightly logical as a mathematical proof. Give hope then destroy it. Repeat as necessary. That is a strategy designed to inflict maximum pain and disorientation. As the Nazis and Soviets realized, people can withstand the most incredible abuses...if they understand the rules and know what to expect. When anything goes, however, when the Law of Identity is revoked, the impossible stands on par with the routine, and the human mind is left impotent.

That fact is both a strength and a weakness in the Repairman Jack novels. On the positive side, the horror is heightened due to the very alienness and unpredictability engendered by the Adversary. Neither Jack nor the reader can rely upon experience to process what happens or to make plans to deal with what might happen to Jack and those closest to him.

On the negative side, however, is what could be called the "Superman Syndrome." The presence of beings who are next-to-omnipotent, who can violate virtually any law of physics at will create an atmosphere of frustration and, ultimately, a "why-bother?" attitude. Remember the story of Job in the Bible: God grants Satan near carte blanche in torturing Job. Satan can destroy all those whom Job loves; can obliterate his worldly possessions; can visit the worst physical afflictions on the hapless man who wants only to live his life. The only thing Satan cannot do is kill Job himself.

Compare this to what has and will happen to Repairman Jack: all he has lost, all he has suffered physically and emotionally, all he has endured to satisfy the whim of a supernatural being with incomprehensible goals of its own. Like Job, Jack will survive the torments he encounters in these books; Nightworld assures us of that. Like Job, Jack's excruciating agony is, in human terms, meaningless and pointless, just as the wrangling of the Adversary and the Ally over a "trivial" piece in their "game" has no intrinsic value.

Being who he is, of course, Jack does not sit idly in his ashes wailing against his fate and begging for surcease or wondering what he did to "deserve" such punishment. He actively does what he can to rectify what goes wrong, though his options are limited given the artificial restrictions imposed upon him by external forces far too powerful for him to defeat.

In this sense, Jack's position parallels that of those fighting to restore freedom in our own society. The modern-day, incipient police state treats its citizens as faceless pawns destined to dance to the tune of its own irrational, self-contradictory dictates. A popular Washingtonian button from a number of years ago captures the attitude of both the Adversary and his "opposite," the Ally, and the politicians and bureaucrats who erroneously believe they can translate into fact whatever they can dream up in their fancies: "Reality Is Negotiable."

But reality, of course, is not negotiable. No one and nothing can escape or subvert or evade the Law of Identity or its corollary, the Law of Causality. While Superman or the Adversary/Ally can act in absurd ways and "get away with it," that is not an option for real people...not even politicians. People can try to ignore reality, but reality has the final laugh. This is a common failing of any type of fiction that conjures a fantasy at odds with the universe. We can "suspend our disbelief" up to a point...but only to a point.

The juxtaposition between Jack, a man who is grounded in the gritty here-and-now, and the vaguely "all-powerful" Adversary does create a dramatic tension, but a tension that can only carry us so far. I'm reminded of Heinlein's Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land who can "will" his hair to stop growing. Nice trick, what? Such "magical" behavior has no relevance to real human beings.

Harbingers does leave us a sort of "out." One character says, "...Nothing is carved in stone. The human variable -- willingly or unwillingly... -- has the capacity to affect outcomes in the most unpredictable ways." (p. 238) Jack is the wild card in the Adversary/Ally contest, though for someone who was unaware of Jack's actions in Nightworld, the above quote would be the equivalent of whistling in the dark, a symbol of bravado or wishful thinking. There has been precious little evidence in the past few "months" of Jack's life to support the efficacy of his freewill decisions. The "no coincidences" mantra transforms him into a puppet dancing at the whim of unseen others or, at best, a rat in a maze who can "choose" some pathways but can do nothing to affect the final goal towards which he is being herded.

An actual, predestined "fate" would render human thought and actions pointless and illusory. Luckily, humans are neither billiard balls pushed hither and yon by external forces nor mystical creatures capable of doing anything and everything. We have an identity, a specific nature. In order to succeed in life, we must both recognize and understand that identity and act in consonance with it. Those who treat people as faceless pawns, who believe that others are the means to ends not their own are spitting in reality's face. These individuals see others " natural resources, as raw materials." (p. 256) They assuage their guilt by claiming, "There's no evil there, just pragmatism." (p. 256)

But only disaster and pain can result from such self-delusion. As Jack points out, such a man-made hell is "So goddamn unnecessary. Just like everything else that had gone down..." (p. 246) The statists and mystics and the collectivists may tout their "social engineering" as laudable and themselves as decent folks, but there is "No evil unless you [are] on the receiving end." (p. 256) As Ayn Rand so presciently and cogently pointed out, "...where there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting sacrificial offerings... The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master." (The Fountainhead)

Jack tells us that the Ally "...can't show compassion because it has none. It can't be held to human moral standards because it makes its own rules and answers only to itself." (p. 256) This is an almost perfect description of how many people view "society" or the "State" or "government." The "almost" is there because in Jack's universe the Ally exists as an actual entity. But in reality, "society" or the "State" do not exist per se. They are abstractions. They have no meaning apart from or above the individual people who do exist. "Society" is nothing more than a shorthand way of describing the relationships among individuals. To say "society" exists as an independent thing with its own needs or desires or rules would be like saying "left" and "right" exist outside the individual people who make such concepts meaningful in the first place. "Society" and the "State" can -- and must -- be "held to human moral standards" precisely because only individual (morally accountable) humans comprise them.

Whether it is the phantasmal Ally or Adversary or State claiming so, there is no "greater good of humanity" (p. 256), a value that exists separately from concrete human beings. "Good" does not and cannot exist divorced from specific individuals. There is only that which is good for Jack or Gia or Vicky. Or you. Or me.

Though in Harbingers, Repairman Jack has become a kind of modern-day Job beaten down by an apparently invincible foe, he does not go quietly into that (not so) good night. Even knowing that he, as Heir, will eventually prevail in this war against the Otherness, we readers still cringe at how much more he must endure before bursting through to the other side. Let's face it: Repairman Jack deserves a break.


I wanted to offer a couple of minor observations on Harbingers outside the review proper.

First, Jack is the consummate individualist. He is a man who wants to be judged for who he is and what he has done, not for any superficial traits or for factors outside his control. This is why I find it jarring for him to (half?) seriously judge a man's worth based on...the kind of beer he drinks!

"And Davis had passed the first test: He didn't drink Bud or -- God forbid -- Bud Light." (p. 96)

Perhaps this is meant as a humorous remark, but since Jack made a similar remark in an earlier book, I can only assume this is not a trivial consideration on his part. But the very notion that how someone's taste buds react to a particular drink or a food is indicative of his value as a person is ludicrous. To act as though Davis deserves kudos because he ordered a "Stella" is as nonsensical as claiming that a person who likes pumpkin pie but not cherry pie is a better human being. Only that over which we have conscious choice and control is praise- or blameworthy.

Jack's thoughts in this situation, then, stand in contradiction to the values that are supposed to define the essence of who he is. Having Jack even entertain such a thought diminishes him as a character. Remember: there should be no accidents in a work of fiction. Every word is chosen and should work in consonance with the theme or it should be omitted.

My second observation concerns one of Wilson's recent stylistic tendencies. In the last few Repairman Jack novels, Wilson has increasingly omitted the subject/pronoun in many of his sentences, especially those involving Jack. Used judiciously, this technique can be helpful in conveying a sense of action and mounting tension, e.g., "Jack jumped from the wall. Looked around. Grabbed an axe and swung."

But overused or used inappropriately, this technique can be jarring, temporarily "removing" the reader from the novel's universe, disrupting rather than facilitating the flow of the story. For instance, a paragraph might be describing a person's actions. The next paragraph might begin, "Turned the corner. Saw a stranger standing by the entrance." A reader would naturally assume the unwritten pronoun's antecedent is the person mentioned in the previous paragraph. But, no. It's not. It's Jack.

Even when it is clear that Jack is the person involved, too often in Harbingers the pronoun/subject is omitted despite the fact that its inclusion would make for a smoother transition or flow. Such usage comes across as arbitrary and counterproductive. I hope in future Repairman Jack installments, Wilson corrects this flaw.


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