Thursday, 7 February 2013

F Paul Wilson; Repairman Jack: stop shooting when you've still got something left in the clip

At the weekend, I put to bed the last of the F Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack books, The Dark at the End. Strictly speaking, it's not the last of them, since he's committed to writing another three about the time between Jack's teenage years (themselves documented in response to popular demand) and Jack's first appearance in print back in 1984's The Tomb. But it's the last in more important sense, because it's the one which covers the last incident in Jack's career before he gets to be one of the big cast of walk-on lunchables in the reissue of Nightworld. That's it, in other words. Wilson had taken the character literally as far as he can go; next stop is the end of the line. Or the end of the world, or something. Nightworld is one of those books which didn't catch on the first time it came out and so I never managed to snag a copy, and when Wilson started trying to rebuild the whole tangled mythology of his "Adversary Cycle" he scheduled a massive rewrite of the book, partly to get around the dated references inevitable in a book first published in 1992 and partly to rebalance it more into all the work he'd done since. The new version of Nightworld isn't out in cheap paperback yet, so I STILL haven't read it, though I'll admit to more than idle curiosity about what it's going to look like. The 1992 version struck me as sounding icky and gloomy and I didn't really stretch myself to find a copy; I'm wondering if either it or I have changed enough to make a difference to that assessment.

Why ramble on about this at all? Partly because I couldn't help thinking as I put down The Dark at the End that Wilson was probably even happier finally to get it out of the way than I was, and it got me to thinking about when you should give up on something which used to be a good thing.

You've got to come at this, to some extent, from the same direction that I originally did. Wilson's not a great writer. A lot of his stuff is pretty run of the mill; if you were feeling unkind, even hacky. I came across him first off in a book called Healer, which I read some time in the 1970s. It's a pretty snappy little SF book, brief and to the point the way they all were in those days, and bits of it are vividly enough written that I can still remember them today, though I haven't re-read the book in decades. I was quite impressed at the time, and kept an eye out for his stuff after that. Next thing I remember reading was a big messy thing called Black Wind, which was three times the size of Healer, and tried to juggle the 1980s American obsession over Japanese culture together with black magic, Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima. The pulp elements worked better than the characterisation, and the book just didn't do it for me. By the time that had come out, Wilson had slid over into horror rather than SF, with a sideline in pulpy thrillers. And these really were pulpy thrillers; most of them only had cheap US printings, and you'd trip over them in second hand bookshops or places like Murder Ink where US paperbacks would mysteriously appear as grey imports despite the weird book monopolies of the 80s and 90s.

His first big hit and game changer was The Keep, which had the high concept notion of vampires meet nazis at a time when no-one was mashing up genres like they do today. It got made into a movie, the most miraculous aspect of which is that somehow Michael Mann was still able to find work after directing it. The Keep, the book, is a pure sealed-evil-in-a-can gig, but something in it seems to have dug in, and Wilson kept coming back to it, winding up with the six books of the Adversary cycle and more or less destroying the world in the last one because sometimes there's nothing left but to turn it all up to 11. But it didn't stop there. He needed to make up a suitably large scale conflict for all this sealed evil to be playing out against, and it started to twine into all his other books, with everything becoming some aspect, openly or otherwise, of the conflict between the Ally and the Otherness, one not so much good as indifferent and the other just plain evil. 

Relax, I'm nearly there. Repairman Jack shows up as the protagonist in the second book in the Adversary cycle, where some of the sealed evil bobs to the surface in 1980s New York. Then Jack goes away only to show up again as one of a big ensemble cast in Nightworld. So far, so bring all your threads together in a bow for the climax. What's weird is that somehow, years later, Jack turned into the character Wilson couldn't let go of. 14 years after he first saw print, he came back in follow up to the Tomb, and ever since, there's been a Repairman Jack book every year or so, fleshing out more and more incidents in the years between his apparent introduction and his big finish in Nightworld. And audiences have been lapping it up - hell, I've been buying all of them as they've come out, and unlike Lee Child books, I haven't even been throwing them away. I think I may have bought some of them twice, since I read the early ones, lost interest and then came back at the sequence again when a friend mentioned them to me as something I might like.

But, they've been getting steadily worse, the closer and closer Wilson gets to the finishing line. He KNOWS where this character is going, and one of the things which he has to do is move all the pieces into place to make him just broken and isolated enough to be the guy in Nightworld. So the early books chip away at him, taking off a family member here and a potential child there, unfolding over weeks and months to give a gathering sense of menace. And about six books back, if the pace of events had stayed consistent, Wilson would have been about ready to wrap it all up with one last chunk of backstory and tee it all up for the grand finale. Instead things started getting dragged out, with less and less left to do in the books, and a scramble to wrap up all-new loose ends which were brought into being by the decision to add three books about Repairman Jack the teenage years quite late in the day. 

Repairman Jack started out as a passably interesting idea, and it's become a career-defining character for Wilson the writer. Take a guy who makes a point of staying off the radar, lives by his own code, is borderline criminal and believes that everyone has the responsibility to look after themselves including by carrying a gun. It's more or less the urban hill-billy extreme end of Wilson's own well known personal beliefs about libertarianism, ramped up to 11 and wedded to a guy a long way up the anti-hero end of the scale of Chandler's "man … who is not himself mean." school of noir protagonist. And in the early books, with Jack going low-rent vigilante on various deserving cases while getting a growing feeling that there's something a lot bigger sizing up him up for a world of hurt, there's some good clean fun to be had. But somewhere between the problem of going down the mean streets too often and the sheer pain in the ass problem of writing prequels when everyone, starting with you, knows exactly where this is all going to end up, Jack just got plain boring, first to Wilson, and then to us. There was a moment, back in 06, when they did a first reissue of Nightworld. If Wilson had wrapped it up soon after that, a lot less books would have got shifted, but the readers would have had something a lot better than we got. As I so often say, less is more.

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