Review of Tim Powers’ Last Call, with reference to the formula of the Dying God as expressed in The Ship.
Joseph Campbell wrote in Hero with a thousand faces that, “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the light to change.” The ancient myths are all around us – we live them daily.
The formula of the Dying God has been expressed in many guises (see Liber ABA, part 3, chapter 5) in such myths as those of Osiris, Jonah, Jesus, Adonis, Baldur, etc. I will assume that readers are broadly familiar with the formula. Tim Powers takes Campbell’s words literally, and in Last Call sets the myth of the Dying God in modern day California and Nevada.
It is useful, however, to contrast the action in Last Call with that in Crowley’s short play, The Ship. This play expresses in dramatic form the formula of the Dying God as found in the mythology of Freemasonry (see Crowley’s explanation in The Confessions, p714.) Where The Ship expresses the pure formula, Last Call represents the perversion thereof.
The first scene in The Ship takes place at the shrine of the deified Sun, within which is John, and his two attendees, high guards, and two devotees. Although John is described initially as the High Priest of the Sun, he is also a King (dressed gorgeous robes of scarlet and gold, with a crown upon his head, and holding an orb and sceptre.) Indeed, he is the very personification of the Sun, as well as its chosen Priest.
It is evening, the sun is setting in the west, and John is closing the shrine. And the tenure of John’s reign as High Priest is also setting, for he is described as “of mature age” and is about to be challenged for the crown. For soon three strangers approach, declaring that they “are come from north and south and east… to build your god a new and nobler shrine.” They prove themselves by possessing the correct Signs and Words for the first two warders, but when confronted by John himself are found to be ignorant of the Word of the Master.
It is apparent that these men are usurpers, that their intention is to take the Shrine for themselves, and to depose the old King. For rather than retreat when proven imposters, they slay John, who will not surrender the secret of the shrine. In the language of Last Call, they are Jacks, gunning to ‘assume the Flamingo’ and take over the Kingship.
Yet, not possessing the necessary knowledge, the Jacks cannot assume the Kingship and are sent fleeing blindly after a blazing light drives them from the Shrine. Eventually, they meet their end at the hands of John’s guards, dying in despair and misery. John’s body is wrapped in a shroud and taken to sea in a ship.1
This ship is the scene of the second part of the play. Tended by his two devotees, John symbolically journeys through the underworld, a prerequisite for the rebirth of the new King.2 Finally, dawn breaks, and through the tender ministrations of the two female devotees, John is born anew as a young man, “dressed in the crown and robes of his father." In glory, he proclaims himself King, speaking those glorious verses now best known as the anthem of the Gnostic Mass.
Last Call, on the other hand, tells the story of a corrupt King, tragic and pathetic. All the elements of the formula of the dying King from The Ship are present, but with characters that are both perverse and all too human. It is a novel of a King that vainly resists passing on his throne to his Son, preferring the arid land of the Nevada desert to the lush lands of corn and wine.
George Leon starts the novel as a Jack, a pretender to the King’s throne, held at that time by the mobster Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel. The latter’s Shrine is the fabulous casino The Flamingo, in the city of Las Vegas.3 Leon studies Siegel over a period of years, before preparing a magical attack against him. Seeking to “build... a new and nobler shrine” and assume the throne, Leon’s painstakingly planned attack results in Siegel’s death. He ‘assumes The Flamingo,’ has it rebuilt, and becomes the new King.
Leon knows that a necessary part of the formula is the King’s death, but seeks to cheat this fate. He marries and begets two sons. He causes his first son, Richard, to become a mindless idiot, squatting day and night on the roof of his Las Vegas home to watch for attack. He has a similar fate in mind for his second son, Scott, but is foiled by his wife on the night of the magical operation.4 In a dramatic scene in which Leon is blasted by a shotgun, and young Scott loses an eye, Leon’s wife manages to steal the boy away to safety. Scott is later found and adopted by Ozzie Smith, a professional gambler.
The shot has blasted away Leon’s genitalia, making him incapable of physical reproduction. Even had he wished, he could now no longer say with The Ship’s John, “He begot me in my season, I must such a Son beget.” Yet he tenaciously clings to both life and the Kingship: instead of producing an heir by the appropriate time honored formula, he perverts it by devising another method of begetting ‘children.’ This is his poker variant ‘Assumption,’ a complicated game in which he, by assuming the hands of other players, gains the authority to assume their bodies at an appropriate time in the future. In one such game, he assumes the body of his own son, Scott. (By this stage Leon is in a different body, and neither player recognizes the other for who they are.)
Fast forward to 1987. Scott is now approaching middle age, and living in a suburb of Los Angeles. Time is running out for him: he is almost ripe for Leon to assume his body, and this is beginning to take a toll on his life. A kind of chaotic zone forms around him – his wife dies of a cancer that is perhaps a result of his physical presence, and he succumbs to alcoholism. This is recognized by his neighbor, Archimides (Arky) Mavranos, who sees in this zone of chaos a chance to heal his own cancer of the throat, and he eventually becomes a devoted knight to this fledgling King Arthur.
Other fascinating characters make an appearance: Scott’s foster father Ozzie; his foster sister Diana (who is destined to become Queen); Dondi Snayheever, whose father, misunderstanding Skinner, forces him to spend his childhood in a large box surrounded by poker cards; Ray-Joe Pogue, who aims to take the Kingship for himself by wedding his Vietnamese half-sister Bernadette Dinh; Al Funo, the homophobic and insecure assassin; and there are many more.5
Gradually Scott pieces together what has happened and realizes that his only salvation lies in journeying to Las Vegas to battle his father. This struggle and accompanying sub-plots forms the bulk of the book, and cannot be easily summarized here. Suffice it to say that, after working through a tangled web of threats to his life, Scott finally comes to a place in which he can challenge his father for his arid kingdom.
Like The Ship, the final action takes place on a vessel on the water. Yet here too, Leon’s perversion of the Kingship shows: rather than the open and natural salt sea, the boat is on the artificially created Lake Mead. Rather than being cared for by devotees, the King is surrounded by poker players who are to be the victims of his Assumption game. No smells of oil and roses either – the boat is sickeningly permeated by the stench of shit and piss from the original body of George Leon, now old, decrepit, and strapped in a wheelchair.
Readers can perhaps guess that Scott Crane succeeds in taking his rightful place as King in the end, but I will not give away the manner in which he defeats his father. With Scott’s assumption of the Kingship, the natural formula of the Dying God again prevails.
“And the old truck sped on up the highway in the morning sun. And in the desert all around, the Joshua trees were heavy with cream-colored blossoms...”
Last Call is the first book in a trilogy of sorts. The second, Expiration Date, has nothing to do with Last Call, but follows the adventures of the young Koot Hoomie Parganas, bred by his Theosophical parents to be the next World Teacher. It takes place in Los Angeles, and centers around strange folk magic and the consumption of ghosts as a gourmet drug. Earthquake Weather is a sequel to both of the previous two books. Here Scott “suffers too the triple treason”, as Powers weaves together the various story-lines into a coherent whole.
1 The ship, though initially battered and leaky, miraculously becomes sturdy once more – a suitable vessel for the body of the King. This is echoes in Earthquake Weather, in which Arky’s blue Chevy Suburban becomes a royal red when carrying the body of the dead King. However, we focus here on the events of Last Call.
2 So too did Jesus travel to hell after his death at Golgotha. And there are many other parallels in the legends of ‘Dying Gods.’
3 As in all Powers’ books, the historical details given are correct.
4 This operation consists of exposing his sons to the mindbending horror of the (mythical) Lombardy Zeroth tarot deck.
5 One should also include here George Leon in the form of the many bodies that he has assumed through his perverse poker game. He keeps their original names, and something of their characters, while possessing them. The names themselves are of interest, for they point symbolically to his Kingship. Thus in ‘George Leon’ – Leon is the lion, symbolic of Tiphareth and the Sun (see Liber 777). Other names include Ricky Leroy, (which as Richard Le Roi shows similar symbolism – Richard is reminiscent of Richard the Lion-Hearted, and Le Roi is ‘The King’ in French) and Art Hanari (which sounds like the Indian God Ardhanari.)