Going Going Gone by Jack Womack
(HarperCollins Voyager, £6.99, 218 pages, paperback; 4 December 2000.)
This is one of those great little novels that's far, far too likely to go unnoticed: a cheaply produced, seemingly uncopyedited, possibly unproofread and certainly rather expensive paperback original, it has been shoved hesitantly onto the market in the traditional book-trade death zone of early December, when booksellers are too tied up in the festive frenzy of discovering how vastly they've over-ordered all the October books that no one wants to buy for Christmas to be remotely interested in stocking any further titles. The bright side of this is that publishing a new book at such a time is almost inevitably an express one-way ticket to the remainder bookshop, so that by the time you read this you may be able to pick up Going, Going, Gone for a fraction of the price indicated above.
And pick it up you should, because this novel is a delight. A glorious mixture of almost Ron Goulartish humour with the sensibilities and linguistic style of cyberpunk (albeit without the cyber), it's not just a great entertainment but also an alternate-reality story of sufficient conceptual complexity that its ramifications continue to turn over in the mind for some while after the last page has been read.
In an alternate USA where black people are officially considered related to the great apes rather than Homo sapiens, and have therefore been exterminated or forcibly deported, Walter Bullitt is a government-sponsored terrorist whose task is to infiltrate perceivedly radical groups and disrupt or destroy them by selling them the latest psychotopic drugs -- which drugs he habitually samples himself for kicks. When first he starts being haunted, he assumes the ghosts are by-products of the hallucinogens. By the time he realizes this is not so, two strange and strangely talking people have entered his life: one a huge and cheerfully homicidal cyborg and the other a petite and oddly fascinating woman, Eulie, with whom he promptly falls in love. They prove to be from an alternate reality; the ghosts are symptoms that it and Walter's own reality are in danger of imminent collision. After much else, the two realities do indeed collide; the result of their fusion is seemingly our own reality, and in it Walter, now united with Eulie, is seemingly Jack Womack himself.
There are plenty of jokes and injokes -- about a decaying New York hotel Walter remarks that "you could tell it wouldn't be long before management finally wrapped its mouth around the gas pipe, and let in sci-fi conventions" -- and any amount of sparkily witty stylishness in the writing, so the occasional jolts and jars caused by the lack of copyediting seem hardly to matter. (For example, it could be the case that the hotel just described is near Schubert, rather than Shubert, Alley in Walter's reality, but one suspects this is simply an error.) One mistake does grate: once in Eulie's reality Walter can make no sense of the language spoken there, yet can read the ingredients list on a packet of instant coffee without any difficulty. Slight though this discrepancy might seem, it has the effect of puncturing the very effective portrayal Womack has been up to that point creating of an alternate New Jersey. It should have been picked up by his editor.
But that's a small carp in light of the many riches that Going, Going, Gone has to offer. The one regret a newcomer to this author is likely to have is that there are only six other Womack novels to read while waiting for his next one.
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© John Grant 31 March 2001