I was avoiding this book, and then I decided to read it during my busiest weeks of the term, which in retrospect was a mistake, since it took me two weeks to read! In Ben's reading world, that is an eternity.
This book comes to me courtesy of an ARC of the Subterranean Express edition, which I received when they shipped me The God Engines. I was pleasantly surprised, and I shelved this book to read it when I could get to it. Every time I took it off the shelf and glanced at the back cover, however, I ended up giving it a pass.
Last Call is set in Las Vegas and deals with Tarot, Grail symbolism, ritualistic magic, and manipulation of statistics. None of this stuff really interests me. I lack the ability to get excited about the myths and legends that have arisen out of the culture of mid-twentieth-century America. So I started reading this book with the attitude that I didn't want to like it, probably wouldn't like it, but I should get it over with and read it anyway.
At first, this attitude was mostly vindicated. But then Powers began tossing out little tidbits that piqued my mathematician's curiosity. He presented the poker powers in terms of probability, statistics, and of course, Mandelbrot. That was kind of cool. And for a bit, it was almost enough to make me forget why this book is difficult for me—almost.
But let me say some good things about Last Call now. The dialogue is often good, and many of the characters—random though they seem—are fascinating in their own way. Despite his understandable use of archetypes, Powers never quite succumbs to stock characters and one-dimensional villains. Deep down inside, this is a father-son conflict, and all of the myriad plots and players dance around this central idea.
Most of the characters I liked happen to be on the side of the good guys. I liked Scott, most of the time, and Archie and Ozzie and, of course, Diana, who is kind of badass toward the end there. I didn't like Georges Leon (or Ricky, or whomever you care to call him), nor did Trumbull do much for me. And Al Funo annoyed me in a way that few characters in fewer books have managed to do.
In addition to the characters and the dialogue, I can also praise Powers' writing in general. He knows how to keep the action going, how to advance the story, and how to whet your appetite for more exposition. I can sort of see what other people admire and appreciate about Last Call, even if it does not enchant me in the same way. Owing to my disinterest in the subject matter, reading this book was more of a chore than an enjoyable diversion. I had to tell myself to turn the page, and the story just seemed to keep on going for hundreds of pages more than it needed.
The plot is convoluted and confusing, and I never really get a chance to care about it all that much. This is a story about the fight for survival, but so much of it is spent not knowing what the hell Scott is fighting. I had to force myself to pay attention and try to figure out what was happening; even then, I found myself skimming through some chapters, just sort of hoping it would all work out in the end.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that my reading of this book was far less involved than most books I read, to the point where I did consider putting it aside more than once. I didn't, and maybe that was the wrong decision, or the right decision—I don't very much know. But I doubt this review was very helpful to you, as ambivalent and vacillating as it sounds to me. Last Call registers on my radar as static, just random background noise with very little in the way of intelligible signal.