The latest Repairman Jack novel by F. Paul Wilson, Infernal, blasts into action with a (literally) shocking bang that thuds into your chest like a high-caliber bullet. Without warning, Jack is thrust into a situation that stuns him as none other has before. Unfortunately for him and those he holds closest to his heart, the unexpectedness of what happens in the beginning of this fast-moving tale pales in comparison to what awaits him down the road.
Even as Jack and his friends attempt to adjust to the trauma that jolts their world, an even more disruptive danger awaits. Worse, the peril Jack, his girlfriend Gia, and Gia's daughter, Vicky, must endure is introduced into their lives by none other than Jack's older brother, Tom.
A Philadelphia judge, Tom travels to New York City to help Jack deal with the aftermath of a tragic visit to LaGuardia airport. But Tom is experiencing major upheavals in his own life and proves to be of only minimal assistance to his brother. In his desperate attempt to extricate himself from his legal troubles, Tom enlists Jack's aid. A boat trip to Bermuda -- the Isle of Devils -- uncovers an ancient artifact, the Lilitongue of Grefeda, one of the Seven Infernals lost to history.
Tom believes the Lilitongue will remove him from his enemies so he can escape the consequences threatening to engulf him. He learns -- too late -- that a little bit of knowledge can be a very treacherous thing, indeed.
Because of what his brother has done, Jack is forced to deal with a challenge that is truly infernal: hellish, fiendish, and diabolical in the extreme.
With each new novel in this intriguing series, we see with increasing clarity that Repairman Jack stands not only at the nexus -- the crossroads -- between the supernatural Otherness and our own reality, but at the intersection between rationality and irrationality, between legitimate and illegitimate violence, between principles and pragmatism.
In Infernal, these and other conflicts are examined through the persons of Jack and his brother Tom (named after their father). The focus on their personalities and the nature of their relationship peels away yet another layer of the complexity surrounding the rare individual that is Repairman Jack.
Initially, Gia and others in the book are amazed at the degree of physical similarity between Jack and Tom. "If Jack had told me he was an only child and you'd sat down at the other end of the bar," Gia tells Tom, "I'd have thought you were his long-lost brother." (p. 86)
But neither brother accepts these judgments of external sameness. As Jack says, "I don't get it. We couldn't be more different." (p. 86) Given who he is, Jack's inability to see himself in his brother's features is hardly surprising.
Tom stands in mirror opposition to Jack, everything about him reversed. What at first blush appears identical is, in reality, incapable of being reconciled. On a visceral level, each brother recognizes the vast chasm separating them. In the realm of what is most important in defining a person -- his values and his attitudes -- Jack and Tom are at the extremes of the spectrum.
Despite a smooth and socially adept exterior, Tom is a twisted doppelganger of Jack. Even the instant attraction to Gia he experiences is based upon a warped, superficial perspective. He wants Jack's lover less for who she is than for what he (thinks) he can obtain from her. His resentment of Jack's status in Gia's eyes arises from a complete misunderstanding of what a strong, healthy relationship requires: a value-for-value exchange between individuals, each with his or her own character, goals, and identity.
Tom responds strongly to Gia's physical beauty but has no ability to recognize what makes her tick at the deepest levels. His envy manifests itself in a kind of greed: an overwhelming desire to possess what not only does not belong to him but which he in no way can or ever will deserve. While he tries to win Gia by pretending to be what he falsely thinks she desires, his sham has not a chance of succeeding. Gia is not one to be fooled by a con-artist, even one as smooth and practiced as Jack's brother.
In contrast to Jack and Tom -- who are superficially the same yet so emotionally distant from one another -- Gia tells Tom that she and Jack are quite different in many ways yet are as close as two people can be. "...[W]e agree on the big things -- the things that matter. We agree on right and wrong, on being truthful, on value given for value received, on what's straight and what's crooked. We both believe in doing the right thing, even though we sometimes disagree on how to do it." (p. 232)
While Tom abandons one wife -- and set of children -- after another, a pregnant (yet unmarried) Gia knows that "...Jack is a rock.... Doesn't matter what's fashionable, what's in, what's out, what's politically correct, what's become legal, what's become illegal, Jack doesn't budge... I can always depend on Jack to do the right thing." (p. 232)
Tom thinks he might be willing -- and able -- to change for Gia, to become more like Jack, if he "had the right reason," that is, her. (p. 233) But Gia tells him that, "I've always figured the reason for doing the right thing is because it's the right thing." (p. 233) Unlike Tom, she thinks that "...you don't do the right thing for anyone else, you do it for yourself. Because doing anything less diminishes you." (p. 233) A person of more conventional morality might tsk-tsk at Gia's words and claim they were the essence of being "selfish." I am sure that Gia -- and Jack -- would answer simply and confidently: "How true."
Though Tom just "doesn't get it" when it comes to his brother, their father (also named Tom) has (after the events chronicled in Gateways) grown to admire his wayward offspring in a way he never could before. This acceptance does not mean full agreement or comprehension of Jack's lifestyle.
During a holiday visit, the elder Tom sees his son in a crowd and notes that he is "Virtually invisible." (p. 14) Despite his reservations, Tom accepts Jack's "obsessive secretiveness" "as part of the package." (p. 14) Reflecting on their recent adventures in Florida, Tom realizes he is curiously unaffected by an experience that might have devastated others. He "had participated in the killing [of a murderous crew] and afterward had expected fits of guilt and remorse. They never came. Strangely, the killing didn't bother him: The dead in this case deserved it." (p. 14)
This matter-of-fact acceptance of a distasteful yet moral action is not all the father shares with Jack. Though generally less overt in his actions than his younger son, the elder Tom is also a man of principle in more mundane situations. In his working life, he refused to accept affirmative action, "a system that put ability second." (p. 96) For him, affirmative action is yet another example of the kind of false front his son Tom exemplifies: a pleasing exterior presented for public consumption that is, at its heart, dishonest to those it purports to help; a program that cheats those who prefer principled action over following the path of least resistance.
In a scene that echoes one in Wilson's Hosts that involved Jack, when confronted with armed assailants, father Tom thinks, "If only he had a gun...he could stop these arrogant murderous shits. They knew no one could fight back." (p. 19) Like Jack (and Jack's friend, Abe, who runs the Isher Sports Shop), the seventy-one-year-old Tom would agree with the shop's motto that "the right to buy weapons is the right to be free." (p. 42) Criminals have little to fear from legally disarmed civilians after ineffectual "guards" -- who provide only a false sense of safety -- are eliminated. As the Founding Fathers knew, it is a body of armed civilians that provides a society with real safety.
Though the elder Tom is uncomfortable because he suspects Jack's career "...probably wasn't on the right side of the law" (p. 16), he is smart enough to know that far too frequently, a world of difference exists between what is legal and what is right. In a free society, of course, there would be no dichotomy: any law would be in accord with what is proper (though not every unethical action would be a legal issue). Still, that ideal retreats farther and farther as Jack attempts to wrestle with both the intrusions of the Otherness and the invasions of the State.
Jack's father is introduced to some of that tension during his Christmas visit. He notices that Jack's "...gaze seemed to linger more on the security personnel than on the Arabic-looking members of the crowd. Why? What about them concerned him?" (p. 16) In a country that is rapidly becoming a surveillance State; that is creating a national identification card via the REAL ID; that is militarizing our police, gutting Constitutional protections for those targeted by authorities, and treating citizens guilty-until-proven-innocent, Jack is wise to distrust the actions of his own government more than the potential threat of random, isolated violence from terrorists. Both the State and terrorists prey on people's fears to get what they want. But any group of terrorists can, at most, kill hundreds or thousands of innocents. Governments destroy millions.
Jack knows the terrorists he encounters aren't "...the only irrational, unreasonable force impinging on him. The Lilitongue was another." (p. 307) But his description of the latter Infernal could as easily apply to the "infernal" State with its burgeoning supply of cameras, biometrics, scanners, trackers, and human-implantable chips that seek to terminate Jack's lifestyle: "But this...he had no moves, no choices, no decision, no wiggle room. An iron jacket." (p. 341)
The State does not want citizens -- especially someone like Jack -- to decide what should and should not be kept private. Indeed, Jack's very intense devotion to maintaining his privacy is quite probably due to the simple fact that the State declares -- at the point of a gun -- that it has a right to demand any and every bit of information it wants about anyone. What someone might willingly do or reveal if left to his own judgment, he might well oppose surrendering when others try to force him down the path they -- rather than he -- decide he should follow...especially when such revelations will be used against him.
Jack is not the kind of individual to take kindly to orders. From anyone.
Given that Jack's brother, the judge, is the embodiment of the State -- literally a part of the government -- while Jack is the quintessential individual, it is little wonder their relationship is alternately cool and contentious. Tom does come to recognize his "arrogance and hubris," his behavior as "a king." (p. 98) He knows he "...was into that sovereign mindset of being a judge, of having the power to decide the fates of people and companies..." (p. 99) But his primary regret is getting caught -- of not keeping it local -- not that he did something wrong. He has lived by the "pragmatist" credo: if an action works to get you want you want, then it's okay. For Tom, the ends always justify the means. His scheme unravels mostly because a thug even bigger than him -- the Federal government -- gets involved.
Tom is an exponent of realpolitik: "It's the way of the world. Two sets of rules out there. One is for public consumption, for the hoi poloi. But the other set, the real rules, are for those who know the game and how to play it." (p. 203 - 204) Tom accepts the "eat or be eaten" weltanschauung: get them before they get you, a Hobbesian view that is diametrically opposed to Jack's credo.
Jack asks Tom, "...without your integrity, what are you? What's left?" (p. 204) Integrity means adhering consistently to who one is; of having all the parts "fit together"; of believing that "what you see is what you get." Jack's integrity is an integral part of his very identity. No wonder Tom is baffled by such an alien outlook. He knows he is "an asshole" but claims that "law school teaches that the letter of the law is all that counts. Forget the spirit... So if you find a loophole or an interpretation that lets you sidestep the spirit of the law, it's okay to exploit it. Right and wrong, just and unjust don't play into it. The only thing that matters is what's on the paper." (p 204 - 205) For Tom, principles are for saps.
Indeed, Tom's "pragmatic" exploitation of others is inseparable from who he is. He reveals this sordid side soon after meeting Jack in New York. Without a thought of the consequences to his target, Tom tries to pass counterfeit money to an unsuspecting waitress. Jack is appalled. As a judge, Tom -- like the State -- presents a public image of probity and strength and rectitude, while in reality he (and the State) rots from the inside out like a dying tree, recognizing his self-destruction only after it is far too late to correct.
Tom's "integrity" is as counterfeit as that of the State that joins him in opposing his brother. The phony money Tom tries to pass is, in a very real way, no more bogus than the unbacked currency the State forces on its citizens, a currency the government has inflated until it has only five-percent of the value it enjoyed a century ago. Who is hurt most by this subterfuge? The small guy. The average Joe and Jane, the "working stiffs trying to earn a living" (p. 51) that the State declares so loudly it is there to "help."
Just as it was the low-paid waitress who was going to be stuck covering the bad bill Tom tricked her into accepting, the poorest in our society are the ones who suffer the most under the velvet-covered fist of the State's suited agents. Tom feels no more remorse over his slimy, petty behavior than does the State he represents as it steals trillions of hard-earned dollars from the citizens it has sworn to protect. Even Jack's protests fail to penetrate Tom's habitual dishonesty. Indeed, Tom criticizes his brother for not being "tough" (p 51), falsely believing that "tough" means acknowledging that social interaction is all a game consisting of what one can get away with, of having no concern for whom is damaged by one's actions.
Some people believe that the type of political hypocrisy Tom demonstrates is simply the result of a weak person succumbing to temptation. But as Lord Acton wrote so long ago, it is the system of political power itself that is the corrupting influence. Without strong chains binding them, politicians will almost inevitably abuse their power and benefit personally from their position. Whether financially or in terms of prestige or just the emotional high some people experience when forcing their will on helpless others, power tends to corrupt.
Tom erroneously thinks Jack reached his "life of crime" by the same avenue he did. Tom's incremental descent into the depths of corruption as a judge parallels the small but ever-increasing steps the State has used to extend its tentacles into all areas of our lives. Whether smoking regulations or taxes or safety programs, every law or rule that supposedly applies in only limited circumstances is expanded and added to until everyone is caught in the net. The Otherness is a power Tom would have an affinity for (and which may explain a key moment in Infernal), a power that ensnares the unsuspecting in its claws, a power wielded solely for evil ends that destroys the innocent, a power that seeks eventually to exert its control over all of mankind.
Jack wields great power, too, of course, but his brand of power emerges from his deep-seated integrity, his unyielding principles, his willingness to use physical violence in the defense of the good against their uncaring exploiters. Jack knows that the kind of short-term, "easy" way out practiced by his brother will, in reality, become incredibly difficult and destructive in the long-run.
In contrast to his brother, Jack started where he wanted to go: "No increments for me... No excuses." (p. 205) He entered into his unconventional existence as a complete outsider open-eyed and ready for whatever transpired. His pariah status in the eyes of the law hardly bothers him, however. "Maybe I am a criminal. Maybe I could even be considered a career criminal. But I'm not a crook. When I say I'm going to do something, I do it. Ironclad." (p. 203)
The sad fact is, we are all criminals. The tangle of self-contradictory laws that Jack disagrees with ensures that each of us has -- at one time or another -- broken a legal requirement or prohibition. It's an infernal position to be placed in, but, like Jack, we have a choice in how to deal with that perverted reality: we can do what "works"...or we can do what is right.
Infernal hooks the reader quickly and sends him along on a journey he does not want to end. Immersing oneself in Jack's universe is a refreshing antidote to a world that, like brother Tom to brother Jack, is the flip side of the "way things ought to be." Learning more about Gia and Jack's relationship sets up the day when Jack will have to confront the conundrum of becoming a father and how to mesh that with his career as a repairman. The book also strengthens the theme that in Jack's life, there "are no more coincidences." Questions are raised that will hopefully be answered in coming sequels.
Readers of the ultimate book in this series, Nightworld, will find some of the tension in these prequels diminished knowing that Jack will overcome any mortal threats he encounters. But there is more than one way to hurt someone, and Jack knows only too well that there is "pain to come." (p. 363)
I'm looking forward to joining Repairman Jack again as he moves towards the ultimate repair job ever: (literally) saving the world.
(NB: For my reviews of other books by F. Paul Wilson and an interview with the author, please visit my home page.)