Vegas, cards and the occult in the summer of ‘69
by Tim Powers
Overview – What’s in the Cards
Absolutely dripping with mystical symbolism and tied together by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Last Call by Tim Powers is a uniquely satisfying tale set in a Las Vegas governed by the cards, and not the ones you’re likely to find on the gambling floor.
Scott Crane grows up with his poker-professional foster father Ozzie Crane, who teaches him to not only play the cards but to believe in what they say, too. Scott dutifully follows along with his father’s superstitions until the summer of 1969, when he writes off Ozzie’s warnings and joins a special game played with tarot cards on a houseboat on Lake Mead. Unknowingly, during this game Scott comes face to face with his biological father, Georges Leon, the Fisher King himself. The stakes are higher than Scott could ever imagine, and though he walks away thinking himself a winner, he has unwittingly bet and lost something that his winnings could never buy back: his soul.
Forward twenty years, and Scott Crane has lost almost everything: he hasn’t seen Ozzie or his foster sister Diana since the night of the fated game on Lake Mead, and his wife Susan has recently died of a heart attack – a disturbing fact, since both he and his neighbor Archimedes “Arky” Mavranos keep seeing her around. When his house is about to be foreclosed on and Scott is strapped for cash, he decides to get back into the cards that he gave up years ago, starting a chain of events that leads Scott back to his past, including Ozzie and Diana, mythical Las Vegas, and the summer of ’69.
Rich with Jungian archetypes, tarot symbolism, and roughly following the legend of Parsifal and the Fisher King, Powers writes a truly wonderful story about our place in the universe and what we all can do with the cards we’re dealt.
My Personal Thoughts – Poker, Parsifal and Jung
Okay, folks – I really, really liked this story. I’m not a poker professional by any means, but the story is so rich with detail and the plot really sank its hooks into me, so I can only imagine how those who love the culture and subtleties of poker would react to this story. However, there were aspects I didn’t like, including how I experienced reading this book. And since I’m the type of person who likes to hear bad news before the good in order to end on a positive note, I’ll break down my thoughts about this novel in the same way.
Like I stated above, I’m not a poker-whiz – never have been, most likely never will be. So the explanations of game play went over my head. I found myself going back to reread passages in an attempt to further my knowledge of what was going on, but more often than not I failed to understand the meaning in the cards. While it reflects more on me than the writer, I would recommend readers like me to brush up on their poker knowledge before picking this one up. It’ll save you a lot of confusion in the long run.
The ending was downright anticlimactic. I spent over 400 pages watching these characters navigate through events that were determined slightly by preparation and largely by chance, only for the end sequence to be determined in the opposite manner. Didn’t make for a very exciting conclusion, and it fell flat compared to all the excitement up to that point. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good ending – it just didn’t play out how I imagined it might.
There were a few characters that I couldn’t wrap my head around. Not necessarily what their motivations were or their stories specifically – those were explained very well – but simply their purpose for being there. Some characters seemed underdeveloped but were essential, functioning as opposition to main characters, while others were given a significant amount of screen time but ended up filling the two-dimensional purpose of beefing up a gangster story. And I felt the same kind of confusion with a few concepts – mainly, I found myself asking, “What does this mean? Why is this important?”
These opinions could stem from my lack of knowledge concerning Jungian archetypes, tarot cards, and the Parsifal legend – all of which the story heavily relies on – but I don’t know anyone else who’s knowledgeable in those subjects, really. A little more in-depth explanation sprinkled throughout the novel would’ve helped poor, ignorant souls like me find the same depth and meaning that the characters kept discovering in the folding of cards and the unfolding of events.
The good thing about this story was everything else. The imagery and detail were beautiful – Powers really knows how to lay down a stunning scene for his readers, and the way he described Las Vegas showed its filth and its mysticism simultaneously. The pacing of the story was well done, and I actually enjoyed the sporadic jumps between characters. And there is absolutely no doubt that Powers knows his stuff – there was so much information about the history of tarot cards, Las Vegas, and other subjects that you can’t help but learn something from reading it. Much like gambling, this story is highly entertaining and secretly teaches you something in the process.
And while there were a few concepts and events that left me puzzled, the majority were interwoven so masterfully that although I couldn’t see exactly where it was going, I could see how all the threads were coming together. The events, characters, and symbolism mixed and spread out so well that I could believe anything about Sin City – maybe the Fisher King still sits in the Flamingo, his Tower of Babel, dealing out tarot cards and swiping souls. Who knows? After all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
The bottom line: I highly recommend this book for those who are looking for a gangster story with something much bigger to offer, or a fantasy novel with a more down-to-earth feel. Take your chances on this one – odds are, it’ll be worth your while.