Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Point Man by Steve Englehart

Part of the 10 Days of Halloween Horror! You can see the rest here and here.

I picked this one up from the library solely on the name Steve Englehart. Though I am quite familiar with his comic book career, I had no idea he'd written a novel. It was sitting in the science fiction section, and I figured what the heck.

Well, it turns out that this "science fiction" book is really a dark fantasy, and not a bad one at that. Englehart crafts a world of magic that has a stronger grounding than you'd expect and some really creepy and terrifying scenes that make this worthy of inclusion in the Halloween Horror celebration.

Max August is a man who hides his war history past and his real name behind the DJ handle of Barnaby Wilde. He's got just about everything he could want--money, fame, and a way to escape everything in the airwaves of San Francisco. When the station manager offers him more--including herself--he opts to take it. What Max doesn't know is that there's another, darker war going on, and he's about to be sucked into the middle.

A simple robbery and crazed man turn the trick, and soon the world of "Barnaby Wilde" is a very different place. As the local police, FBI, and other, more sinister agencies start invading his life, Max doesn't know where to turn. Things are happening to Max that are straight out of a comic book. His only hope is a singer with a diamond-hard edge and her mysterious manager. But can this trio defeat forces that are far older than the nations fighting the cold war? Is Max ready to face his shameful past and return once again to being...the Point Man?

This book has one major oddity that readers should be aware of it. It was written about 1980 but has been re-issued by Tor here in 2010 because Englehart has finally written a second book about August. This is not a new book set in the past. This is Englehart writing how he felt about the late 1970s. In some ways it is a product of its time. The cold war is in full force here, with the idea of the Russians having ties to ultimate evil playing a big part in the plot. References and cultural attitudes are definitely dated (and occasionally cringe-worthy) and the whole idea of DJs having a cult of personality is something that some modern readers might not even understand.

Perhaps the biggest part of this is Max's guilt about his role in Vietnam. Since most Vietnam veterans are now in their 60s or later, I think we tend to forget that it was a very difficult war to be a part of, and Englehart using it as a touchstone would resonate strongly with his intended audience. I'm not entirely happy with the idea of Max being a murderer as a GI, as it adds to the myth that every man who went to Vietnam killed innocent women and children. There are other ways Max could have had a flawed past. However, it's not enough for me to dislike the book. At least Englehart found a way to make it work within the story, rather than as just another cliche.

Once you accept that you're reading classic dark fantasy by a person who never got a novel-writing career off the ground, the book flows pretty well. Englehart's prose is a bit stilted at times, with a few sections containing clunky dialog or romantic scenes. You can tell he's more comfortable with writing a plot for others to illustrate, if you know what to look for. Englehart does avoid information dumps, spreading them out and using the slow reveal of information as a plot point for Max, who needs to get educated on magic as the book goes on. I found this a clever way to explain the magical reality we were dealing with. There's only one time that he slips up, and that's where Cornelius (the singer's manager) talks a bit too much about the nature of magic. I found myself a bit bored and wishing to get back to the action.

It was interesting to me that Englehart, who spent some time writing Doctor Strange (a great sorcerer in Marvel comic books), grounded his book's magic in ideas that any practicing pagan would find familiar. I know enough people who do magick to recognize some of it, and though he takes liberties, the idea that the magic in this book comes from a real source impressed me. We still get fantastic creatures and abilities that are not real, but they start from a point as logical as you can get when dealing with a fantasy. That was a strong selling point for me as I was reading.

The plot itself moves very well. Englehart always was pretty good at balancing action and rest in his comics, and that shines through here. Max keeps thinking he understands and keeps having the rug pulled out from under him. Like any good hero, however, he manages to keep pushing on, and finds something in himself to go that extra mile. Max is a bit like Captain America or Batman--no matter the odds, they'll find that reserve within themselves to be, well, a hero.

I also appreciated that Englehart was perfectly willing to kill people off and to make sure that nothing works perfectly. Max might save the world from a horrible fate, but he'll pay for it. He never comes to anything easily, either, which can be a book killer for me. There are quite a few moments of horror in the book, most of them playing off the occult aspects of the story. We get a very good picture of these scenes, too, which gives the whole thing a darker edge that it might have otherwise missed. We're dealing with demons and the devil, but only just enough to flavor the book, not spoil it.

The Point Man is not a perfect book. It may be too dated for a lot of a readers and the ideals of the main characters probably only work for an audience that remembers when the only thing we worried about was one big nuke instead of dirty bombs. However, this is a series character that's done in one, giving you the chance to sample it without being locked into 1000 pages of reading. If you like dark fantasy, stories that base themselves in our reality, or were a fan of Englehart's comics, I'd make a point of giving this one a try.

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