William Morrow Paperbacks, 1993 (reprinted 2013).
“If the drink in your glass starts to sit at an angle that ain’t quite level, or if the cigarette smoke starts to crowd in over the cards and fall there, or if plants in the room suddenly start to wilt, or if the air is suddenly dry and hot in your throat, smelling like sun-hot rock, fold out. You don’t know what you might be buying or selling come the showdown.”
— Ozzy Crane in “Last Call”, on how to tell when magic is being cast during a card game.
A few weeks after Con it was still gnawing at my mind, so I investigated further. Reading Powers’ biography further intrigued me. Here was an award-winning author, mentored by Philip K. Dick, who coined the term “steampunk” with his friend and fellow author James Blaylock.
And the plot: A mélange of Arthurian mythos, Las Vegas history, tarot magic, poker superstition and fractal geometry — oh, this is going to be one mind-fuck of a ride.
Last Call didn’t disappoint.
The story revolves around Scott Crane, an alcoholic poker professional who won the jackpot, but may have lost even more, during a mysterious game of poker with tarot cards, 20 years earlier. Along with his adoptive father and his neighbor, a mathematician dying of cancer, Crane sets out for Vegas to challenge the man he faced in that fatal poker game — his biological father, an immortal magician who killed Bugsy Siegel in order to become the Fisher King.
Last Call crackles, a paranoid, tightly plotted lost weekend filled with allusions to T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” and Egyptian mythology. Historical truths, from the building of the Flamingo Hotel to the damming of the Colorado River, take on mystical import.
But Powers balances the heavy magic with plenty of wit. Along the way we meet Elvis impersonators vying for the King’s throne, and the Amino Acids, a gang of new-age mystics.
It is also damn difficult to classify — the energy feels like cyberpunk, but there is nothing remotely cyber about it. Perhaps Last Call is urban fantasy, but it lacks the overflowing population of vampires and werewolves that have made the genre so cliché. The closest analog is probably Neil Gaiman’s expansive American Gods, but even that doesn’t seem precise.
But no matter what you call it, Last Call is an exhilarating ride through the Nevada desert filled with all the tension of the final round of the World Series of Poker.