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Free Live Free
Gene Wolfe
Tor Orb Books, 403 pages

Photo: Jayne Bidaut
Free Live Free
Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is one of the most respected writers in the field, and one of the few authors in the genre whose stories have been accepted in mainstream publications such as The New Yorker. Nominated 19 times for a Nebula Award, he has received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. He is known for strikingly audacious novels such as The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but most readers will probably have learned to appreciate his writing in The Book of the New Sun series, and the associated Long Sun series. Free Live Free was first published in 1985. Wolfe lives in Barrington, Illinois, USA.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Urth of the New Sun
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jean-Louis Trudel

Few authors succeed half so well as Gene Wolfe when it comes to assembling a cast of uncommonly interesting characters challenged to go beyond the confines of their everyday lives. Moreover, Wolfe will not flinch an instant from delivering on everything that implies. Free Live Free will delight readers looking for a character-driven story set in a familiar world whose underlying eeriness is slowly revealed.

The story begins in modern-day Chicago, with four people driven to room together for a few days in Benjamin Free's old house, scheduled for demolition. They are: the out-of-work private detective Jim Stubb, a small man always looking for the big break; the occultist Madame Serpentina who neither charms snakes nor tells fortune but is most definitely a witch; the overweight prostitute and sexual therapist Candy Garth; and the salesman Ozzie Barns, ever optimistic, ever down on his luck.

Together, they unite to try and save Free's house from demolition. Though their efforts are in vain and Free himself disappears, the old man has let slip some fascinating hints. Could his talk of a country he was exiled from and the hidden key to his return be a reference to a secret treasure or heirloom?

Yet, they are hardly in a position to embark upon a treasure hunt: the four are practically penniless. The demolition of Free's house has thrown them out in the street in the middle of a Chicago winter. To survive, and uncover the truth, these unlikely heroes must rely on their wits and experience of life on the edge, while pursuing a tangled trail.

The novel's greatest strength is no doubt Wolfe's ability to convince us none of them ever drop out of character, while revealing at the same time the further depths and resources of each: the feats of deduction of Jim Stubb, the cunning ploys of Madame Serpentina, Candy's understanding of mankind... The novel's second greatest strength may be Wolfe's gritty depiction of Chicago, a city of ordinary people who, somehow, when they come together, fashion an uncanny obstacle course for the main characters.

The plots wrought by many writers in the genre are so clunkily put together that the demanding reader can hear the rivets strain, but Wolfe has little in common with such plot tinkerers. He is a composer of stories that flow like the movements of a classic symphony. Yet, a jury-rigged plot by an earnest craftsmen may well be more logical in the end than Wolfe's wild ride -- but the reader only realizes it afterhand.

In the best pulp tradition, Wolfe sticks to relentlessly personal viewpoints throughout, only distancing his authorial voice slightly at the outset of a few chapters, to set the scene. The result is a deeply engaging book, with each story twist helping us to feel for the flawed characters at the book's heart.

Wolfe is reported to have advised would-be writers creating characters that, "No one is clinically sane if you know them well enough." The lengthy visit to a psychiatric hospital in Free Live Free provides us with an ironic demonstration, as most of the book's protagonists fail to stand up to scrutiny. Yet, even if Wolfe's characters are tested to destruction, they endure and are shown to be worth more than they may think. They may weep, but they also laugh and go on.

In the end, Wolfe's attention to the small touches of life in the city is what makes the book come most alive: the games and puzzles sold by Ozzie, the sweet scams pulled by Candy, the cross-section of urban characters encountered by Stubb, the breakfasts in neighbourhood joints, the routine of a large hotel... And polyglot readers will appreciate the mangled, multilingual invocations of Madame Serpentina. On the other hand, the walk by our heroes through Chicago streets darkened by a power failure is an extraordinary piece of evocation, as fantastic and magical as any scene pulled from a fantasy novel.

There is in this novel a compassion not always evident in Wolfe's other books. It is an unsentimental compassion, but it carries the story to its conclusion. In some ways, the ending is a bit of a letdown. The revelation of Benjamin Free's true identity feels contrived and the detailed explanation of his various deceptions is not entirely persuasive. However, Wolfe deals kindly with his heroes: the ultimate fate of the foursome is the part that counts, and their redemption will stay with readers.

Copyright © 1999 by Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel is a busy, bilingual writer from Canada, with two novels and fourteen young adult books to his credit in French. He's also a moderately prolific reviewer and short story writer.

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