Death Is Easy

Russell Madden

Freedom As If It Mattered

As If
It Mattered
Russell Madden

Guardian Project

The Guardian
Russell Madden


Russell Madden




Russell Madden



F. Paul Wilson. Cold City. Gauntlet Press. July, 2012. 376 pp. $60.00.

Before Jack became the Repairman, he was a young man attempting to escape his troubled past. The murder of his mother and Jack’s revenge against the perpetrator of that random crime propelled him into the relative anonymity of 1990 New York City. After losing his job as a member of a landscaping crew, he is faced with bleak prospects for success. With no Social Security number, no driver’s license, no college degree, no bank account, no phone, no tax history, he is a man with “no official existence.” (p. 26) He wants nothing that ties him to anyone or anything. His “freedom” consists of negatives, of not “belonging,” not “participating.” (p. 25) No family, no girlfriend, no associates. His freedom echoes the definition offered by singer Janis Joplin: nothing left to lose.

He considers himself a “murderer” for being so “cold-blooded” (p. 26) in the way he eliminated the man who killed his mother. Yet perhaps his notion of “murder” is as mistaken as his desire to sever all the kinds of human connections that help make life worth living. It’s a mistake that will come to haunt him before his adventures in Cold City are concluded.

The one slim thread to his past (and, perhaps ironically, to his future…) that he has not cut is with Abe Grossman, the nephew of his former employer in his hometown. Not only has Jack already turned to Abe to assist him in procuring a suitable apartment, he now seeks out the owner of the Isher Sports Shop to help him purchase a gun. When Jack nearly kills a jealous coworker, he fears the violent reactions of the tormentor’s friends. Even worse, Jack suddenly finds himself unemployed in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

Abe insists that Jack take firearms lessons, a condition that creates yet another thread ensnaring Jack’s life. The instructor, Dane Bertel, is drawn to Jack’s solitary bubble and offers the angry young man a job smuggling cigarettes. Jack’s acceptance of that driving gig creates the kind of enduring, entangling mess that epitomizes the very type of situation that he abhors.

Jack doesn’t “like being out of control,” (p. 24) either of his own emotions and actions or which influences enter his life. Unfortunately for him — as for all of us — his ability to filter out undesirable factors is extremely delimited. The only option for avoiding such points of contact is to cease to exist.

At first blush, the actions that ultimately lead Jack to confronting a crew of slavers appear completely divorced from Jack himself. A woman who calls the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) to report a suspicious situation; a dog that dashes into traffic and causes an accident; an intersection with brothers attempting to right a serious wrong. All are examples of the old saying, life is what happens to you as you make plans for the future. Few of us avoid detours from the roadmap we once envisioned for ourselves.

In reality, there are always causes but no teleological “reasons” (no external plans) for much of what affects us. There is only the “butterfly effect” (p. 367) to account for the majority of these results. For Jack, though, the cold, hard truth is that there are “no coincidences.” His inner rage is the result of an odd genetic code that connects him to another realm. The woman and the dog — the “busybody biddy” and the “jaywalking dog” (p. 367) — indirectly yet purposefully manipulate Jack into his collision with the slavers, a first step in their quest to guide Jack in the war against the Adversary.

While Jack struggles to control the uncontrollable, the very society surrounding him conspires to deprive him of the autonomy he holds so dear. Jack may attempt to carve a niche of freedom, but too often his behavior is not determined by what he wants to do but rather by what he seeks to avoid. In that sense, others are controlling his actions, usurping Jack’s rightful role of self-control.

Self-control and self-responsibility are motifs that inform much of the plot in
Cold City. While Jack might tell himself he wants to be an island, his own values interfere with that goal. When his boss, Bertel, intervenes in a domestic dispute, Jack ultimately agrees with him that “There are certain things I will not abide in my sight.” (p. 51) A principle such as that is a flare designed to destroy any attempt to walk alone and detached from the world. Indeed, as the Adversary Cycle proceeds, Jack’s notions of right and wrong propel much of what he does. In that regard, he, indeed, is the “decider.”

Society and the government that is entwined so intimately in that social fabric seek a facade that pretends to care for us even while reducing us to infantile dependence. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Society … does not tyrannize but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people … of which the government is the shepherd.”

Abe pushes Jack to confront this cultural pressure, to realize that we should be the ones to direct our lives, not retreating into the short-term “comfort” of having others — people, the government, friends, or family — take on that task. Society, government pretend they can protect us from failure and pain. But not only can they not do so, they should not, even if they could:

“You want I should decide for you? I can’t. You’re a grownup now. By your wits you want to live? Then sometimes you have to take chances.”… “Does the gelt outweigh the risk? Is the risk worth the gelt? Is any risk too much? If so, maybe a school janitor you should be.” (p. 56)

Even Jack has to break from his subconscious wish to seek “fatherly advice” (p. 56) that will, in essence, make his decision for him. Yet while far too many people shy from such a choice, Jack realizes that the prospect of relying on himself dovetails nicely with who he is and who he wants to be:

Abe...was treating him like an adult, like a peer, telling him to evaluate the pros and cons of Bertel’s offer and make up his own mind. Jack could get used to that. (p. 57)

Part of Abe’s wisdom lies in his realization that even while society tries to deprive its citizens of individual responsibility, it simultaneously and paradoxically seeks to shame us into accepting unnecessary and unwarranted responsibility for consequences that are effected by the evil and destructive among us:

Jack had to ask: “ ever worry that one of the guns you sell will kill an innocent person?”

Abe shook his head. “If I sold cars I should worry whether my customer is a drunk and will run down a lady pushing a baby across a street?”

… Jack held up his hands. “Okay, I get it.”

… “… There’s no gun problem. There’s a media problem and a politician problem…” (p. 239 - 240)

Even if what society or government pushes or forces us to do would objectively be better for us (e.g., eating better, getting more exercising, becoming more educated), even if such goals would be ones we would otherwise hold for ourselves, Jack knows that a truly moral person who cherishes himself and his liberty would resist such plans to “better” us:

Reggie sighed. “...All y’gotta do is drive, just like you was gonna do anyway. Why you making such a fucking big deal out of it?”

Because it’s not my choice, Jack thought. (p. 150)

Despite this noble stance, Jack’s paradox is, as noted earlier, that his principles — ideas he has freely chosen — do not permit him the “luxury” of complete detachment. Continuing what began in his home town and will terminate in him rescuing our universe from oblivion, he cannot escape his belief that “...I will save you all.” (p. 164) Indeed, that saving of the innocent, the guiltless underpins his future career as the Repairman. While he is well-compensated for his actions, money alone would never explain what moves him to confront such formidable odds and such dangerous opponents.

Still the question raised before when Jack killed his mother’s killer remains: what behaviors can be justified by the goal of saving — or avenging — the blameless? When he took the life of the man who stole his mother from him, Jack labeled that an act of murder and himself a murderer. Indeed, the latter appellation prodded him to cross the bright line — the insurmountable barrier — he believed existed between himself and his past.

But “murder” is taking the life of an innocent human being. The man who deliberately killed Jack’s mother — even though she as a victim was randomly chosen — forfeited by his actions — his voluntary choices — any right to his own life. It is not murder to kill a murderer. Such a person has elected to step outside the realm of persuasion and respect for rights. Like a rabid animal, he must and should be eliminated as a threat to us all.

Later in
Cold City, Jack has the opportunity to remove a person who demonstrated a blatant disregard for life, rights, and morality; a kidnapper and would-be murderer. Again, his misguided compunction to save the criminal, Reggie, flows from his understandable but erroneous view of what constitutes murder:

Killing a guy to protect someone else was one thing. This would be something else. This would be flat-out murder. (p. 186)

In the end, his reticence endangers not only his own life but the lives of those he has pledged to protect:

… “You went and let a subhuman live. Told you you’d regret it.” (said Deacon Blue)

Jack guessed the brothers had been right, because right now he was regretting it. But he still didn’t see how he could have crushed an unconscious man’s skull. He’d had a hard enough time cracking his kneecaps. (p. 290)

It hardly seems nobler to wait for a poisonous snake to awake and have a fresh go at you than to kill it while you can. Jack’s unwarranted “compassion” for one who does not deserve it nearly costs him his life.

Cold City provides fascinating insights into the early life of a legendary character. While delving into these previously only hinted at episodes, it manages to raise a number of intriguing questions that one can mull at one’s leisure. The main problem Jack confronts is satisfactorily resolved, though I did not realize till near the end that the conclusion of other plot points was going to be deferred to one of the other books in this Early Years Trilogy; a minor disappointment but still a bit regretted.

Regardless, watching the pieces of the puzzle that is Jack’s life and career come together is well worth the ride. I encourage readers to hop aboard that train.