A shark cruising through murky oceanic waters. Suddenly, a splash. A red stain of thick fluid streams below the waves. An ever-increasing sphere of potential chaos attracts the predator's sharp attention. The ancient being swims closer, seeking the source of this Siren's call to destruction. The struggling body of a wounded creature becomes the shark's unrelenting focus. Its jaws spread. Teeth flash. Death ensues.
In F. Paul Wilson's latest addition to the Repairman Jack saga, Bloodline, the motif of "blood" guides, enlightens, and horrifies both Jack and the reader as never before. The result is a perversely fascinating tale that grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and drags him along at a breakneck pace to destinations both fair and foul.
Still recovering from the events revealed in Harbingers, Jack and his surrogate family are struggling to come to grips with the loss of Gia's -- and Jack's -- unborn child ("the baby [who] carried his bloodline" [p. 13]) after the murderous "accident" that nearly killed both Gia and her daughter Vicky. Jack's unearned guilt digs at his soul, especially given the secret he fears to share with those closest to him: that the attempt upon their lives came from enemies out to destroy him; that "he was the cause of all the trauma" (p. 13) that had shredded their collective lives.
As a result of his shame, his "cowardice" (p. 17), Jack has taken no fix-it jobs for three months. He wonders if he has, perhaps, slid into retirement from a business that has, for so long, disturbed and upset Gia. Given her past reactions to the danger he both endures and creates, Jack is surprised when it is Gia who encourages him to "get back on the horse" and help a mother seeking to "keep [her] daughter from making a terrible mistake." (p. 9) After her life-altering experience, Gia realizes that, not only can she not change Jack, but she's "no longer sure [she] wants to." (p. 14) Jack is who he is, and it's that reality that she loves. She knows his career is "in [his] blood." (p. 15)
Bored and restless, Jack finally agrees to take on a new customer. Christy Pickering -- a single mother who has become a self-made financial success -- is beside herself. Her plain-looking eighteen-year-old daughter, Dawn, has taken up with a man old enough to be her father. Though Christy has no evidence to back up her suspicions, she does not trust gaming programmer Jerry Bethlehem. She believes his attractive blue eyes and easy-sounding Southern drawl hide a darker purpose.
Though such a domestic case hardly seems his style, Jack decides that a simple task such as this would be a good way to ease back into more serious fix-it situations. Unfortunately, in a world on an ultimate collision course with obliteration by the Otherness (as told in Nightworld), no situation involving Jack can be that straightforward.
While he begins his probing into the life of Jerry Bethlehem, Jack learns the truth of the saying "no good deed goes unpunished" when he does a favor for his friend, Abe, owner of Isher Sports Shop. An old anthropology professor of Abe's, Dr. Peter Buhmann, is nearing retirement. Buhmann aided Jack with the mysterious text, the Compendium of Srem (as recounted in Infernal; my review here), and wants to see the near-mythical book with his own eyes before he dies. When the book mysteriously disappears, Jack learns precisely how wrong he was in thinking "how much could it hurt?" (p. 29) to loan out the volume.
Unfortunately for Jack, the problems engendered by his job for Pickering and the theft of the Compendium are compounded when he makes the acquaintance of Hank Thompson -- author and leader of the "Kicker" movement, a self-help discipline in which one becomes "dissimilated" -- and Aaron Levy, a genetic researcher at the Creighton Institute. The intertwining threads in Bloodline become even more complicated when they extend to such past threats as the Dormentalists, the Otherness, and, of course, Rasolam, the prime "agent" for evil in the cosmic conflict unfolding around (and through) Jack.
As mentioned above, "blood" looms prominently in Bloodline, either figuratively or literally. There is plenty of "blood and guts" here, as the body count ratchets higher on both sides of this titanic yet sub rosa struggle. Dispensing death is nothing new for either Jack or the Otherness. Both are adept at concocting particularly gruesome demises for their opponents. The crucial difference, of course, is the reason for the killing. While some people condemn "violence" per se, retaliatory force is as moral as murder is immoral. Jack sometimes teeters on the edge of that distinction, but at least he wrestles with the demons he calls his own. For those in league with the Otherness, using violence is only a negative if they face capture or the loss of some short-term goal.
For Jack, the old adage that "blood is thicker than water" is also reinforced by the events in Bloodline...though not in a literal fashion. Indeed, those most closely related to Jack genetically are not-so-slowly being eliminated from his life. Parents and siblings have died at an accelerated pace as the end nears. But the idea that family relationships and family loyalties are indeed the most important and crucial is born out as Jack tries to connect with -- and worries most about -- those who form his actual family: Gia and Vicky, of course, but also Abe. Their welfare is central to the choices he makes and the actions he performs. Indeed, the unforeseen negative consequences of his efforts as a "repairman" and how they affect his chosen family are what haunt him the most.
Though Jack often sees a warped reflection of himself in the behavior of those committed (knowingly or not) to the Otherness, any literal physical or psychic connection he shares with them is of less importance than what he has chosen as his priorities. After all, what is truly significant about a person is what he decides to do...and what he actually does. What results from his genetic code; who his parents are; where he was born; where he was raised; what others around him do or do not do: none of that is under someone's control. Ultimately, to feel "guilty" for any of those things or to disparage others in a similar circumstance is to betray an overweening arrogance, a presumptuous belief bordering on hubris that one has control over the uncontrollable.
(This is why, in the context of these tales, Jack's continued and often-repeated moralistic "beer snobbery" is so baffling and jarring. Since when is anyone's worth as a human being determined by what his taste buds do or do not find appealing? After all, de gustibus non est disputandum is true for good reasons.)
Indeed a crucial quote comes halfway through this novel:
"It always comes down to personal responsibility," Jack said. "Like you said, the oDNA triggers violent impulses. But there's one more step before the violence: You still have to decide whether or not to act on the impulse. And even if you're drunk or coked up at the time, you're responsible for deciding to drink or snort. So even though you have an impulse to drop a cinder block off an overpass, you don't cross the line until you release it." (p. 191)
The violence committed by the Otherness -- and by the State Jack so zealously tries to avoid -- is never honestly confronted by the perpetrators. The power they violently wield is power for its own sake, asserting the "right" to use people -- whether an impressionable and homely teenager or a country's citizens -- for whatever reasons happen to strike their fancy. Worse, the Otherness/the State frequently cloaks its destructive intent in the guise of enslaving us for our "own good" and with a false compassion that never extends beyond lying lips. The Otherness/State whispers absolution from honest guilt and instills guilt where none is warranted.
We are mere "pawns." It's not our fault nor that of the Otherness/State but always someone else who is "to blame." We are victims of "seduction." The Otherness/State "swears" it is telling us the truth even as it attempts to bury reality. We shouldn't be "thinking about [our]selves" but should instead concern ourselves with someone else and what he wants. The Otherness/State will keep us "safe" and protect us from any "monster" lurking around the corner. Its mask of "comfort and safety [with no] hint of danger" lures us into its clutches as it seeks what is "best" for us, "guiding" us gently yet firmly in the direction it wants us to go, promising that "everything will be all right now" as the doors lock behind us...and our "guardian." Instead of heaven, however, the Otherness/State delivers us into a "hell on Earth for humanity" while it swells in strength and influence. (p. 416 - 423)
In Bloodline, we see the "blood, sweat, and tears" that both Jack and the Otherness expend as they fight towards opposing goals that will soon intersect in an almost literally earth-shattering cataclysm. For Jack, his clients, and the Otherness, "blood will tell," as devastating secrets emerge from carefully crafted concealment. The number of players with "blood on their hands" mounts, blood that they can wash away with as little success as Lady MacBeth enjoyed. Both Jack and his nemesis Jerry Bethlehelm "get their blood up" as they face up to their own savage rage...though for radically different reasons. For each of them, the explanation for their similar yet divergent actions lies "in their blood," as fundamental values ingrained in their respective characters come to dominance. On the surface, both act "in cold blood," ruthlessly, seemingly without feeling...but this is an illusion. While J and J both observe behavior that "makes their blood boil" and act in bloodthirsty ways that would "make others' blood run cold" if they discovered the truth of what the J's have done and are capable of, when Jack is "out for blood," he is motivated by his desire to preserve values. Though Jerry has convinced himself that he, too, shares that desire, his false "values" are aimed at nothing more than debasement, death, and destruction.
Oceanic sharks are attracted to blood in the water because they are focused on basic survival. But the Otherness sniffs out such bloody trails because it thrives on the pain of innocents, on chaos for chaos's sake. A shark does not gain perverse pleasure from the suffering of its prey. Rasalom does.
Bloodline is not for the faint of heart. Blood-curdling in its blood-...er...baths..., yes, but where else will a devoted reader of Repairman Jack enjoy the opportunity to meet "P. Frank Winslow," author of the "Jake Fixx novel" Berzerk! and its precursor, Rakshasa?