Dinner at Deviant's Palace Mass Market Paperback – Jun 1985
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From Publishers Weekly
First published in 1985, this legendary and still distinctive novel may attract new fans, although the postnuclear-war theme has become somewhat dated. Technology has vanished in a barbaric, 22nd-century California run by a Sidney Greenstreet lookalike messiah, Norton Jaybush, who boasts a fancifully colossal "night club of the damned" in Venice and his own Holy City in Irvine. His young hippie followers, aka "Jaybirds," drift in a hallucinatory Philip K. Dick-style dream, while "redeemers" strive to rescue them. The serviceable plot focuses largely on the efforts of the hero, Gregorio Rivas, a musician and former redeemer who lives in "Ellay," to bring back a runaway. The film Mad Max (1980) seems to have inspired many of the images in this rundown world, such as "an old but painstakingly polished Chevrolet body mounted on a flat wooden wagon drawn by two horses." Powers has a nice knack for puns, e.g., a "hemogoblin," a balloonlike monster who sucks blood from its victims, and "fifths," paper money issued by a "Distiller of the Treasury." The antireligious tone of the book, not uncommon in science fiction of the era, is a refreshing change from much of today's blatantly proselytizing SF (see feature, "Other Worlds, Suffused with Religion," Apr. 16). At times Powers's heavy prose style can be trying, but his engaging conceptions will keep most readers turning the pages.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"Dinner at Deviant's Palace", however, is something different. It's far closer to science-fiction than almost anything else I've read from him before. Granted, it's an early novel (though not embryonic, "Anubis Gates" had already been published) but it shows an interesting direction that he could have gone in, plus an example of what a novel in another genre might look like once he applied his abilities to it.
It takes place in a future US where civilization has been drastically rearranged. Currency appears to be based on alcohol and several nuclear wars seem to have occurred, leaving the remaining cities to function more or less as their own entities. Fairly musician Greg Rivas is going about his business as usual when an old girlfriend's father shows up with a proposition. Even though he hates Rivas' guts, he will pay him handsomely for a job he used to do: "redeem" people. You see, there's a cult wandering around the area, the Jaybirds, who are very good at bringing people into the flock and not letting them out. In fact, people don't want to get out. Rivas, as a former cult member, is more than decent at it, so against his better judgement he goes in again.
The most interesting thing about this novel is how straightforward it is. For the most part Rivas' quest proceeds in a linear fashion and while he runs into detours and obstacles along the way, we don't run into any big twists or surprises as the novel winds on. Most of the appeal of the novel comes from exploring the future world that Powers has created and looking to see where it deviates from our world. It's clear pretty much from the onset that he has thought this through to a ridiculously detailed degree, down to the slang terms and the texture of how this new world would operate, the rules of the differing factions and how those factions would affect each other. There's a certain sense of history to it, that this world had a long and fruitful life long before we came stumbling along to read about it. Done improperly, this could become a mere travelogue, with Powers like a kid who just bought a museum, eagerly taking you on the tour to make sure you've seen everything. And the plot skirts just clear of becoming that.
What's interesting is that for all the issues it potentially could raise, the necessity of cults in a world without marked consistency, the the fear of falling into the comfort of a collective, the exploration of loss in an environment where you're constantly on the verge of losing everything, the fear of re-inhabiting the past in order to refute it, the novel sticks to the pace and conceits of an adventure story, content to move onto the next exhibit in the catalog.
It's a world just on the verge of the magical realism, for every SF concept there are bits like the hemogoblin, a vague gaseous intelligent beast that likes to suck blood. And then there's the whole concept behind the cult itself, which vaguely involves space and I can't go into too much without spoiling the story. Powers clearly had fun coming up with it, putting as much research into it as he does for his more historically based novels, extrapolating as best he can. Which helps, because since the story lacks his typically controlled and breakneck notion of plotting, we're left with a man who is discovering his world at the same time we are. If the thrill of discovery is right up your alley, then there's loads to discover here, the machinations and the ins and outs of how the world functions. There's hope early on that this novel might go somewhere mind-bending, as Rivas confuses past and present as he gets back in the cult, but that perverted sense of time goes nowhere.
Instead, we get the plot hurtling forward like a bird skimming the top of a lake, occasionally plucking out a shiny and iridescent fish for us to marvel over. We get scenes inside the cult. We get scenes of Rivas running and scheming and reacting and eventually getting closer to the aforementioned dinner at the palace of the deviant. Readers will probably have seen this coming before Rivas does but when the climax finally arises and we meet the head Jaybird himself, who the entire novel has spent foreshadowing, there's an odd flatness to it. Entering the palace should be an introduction to the Gothic and alien, a true tonal shift leaving behind all the strangeness we've seen already for a strangeness that even Rivas can't cope with. But the horror eludes us. There's one creepy moment of real danger and then it resolves and we're left feeling this was the way it has to be the whole time. At some points it feels like Powers was so fascinated with the world that he didn't pay as much attention to the plot as he normally does. And what was up with the sacrament anyway?
It reads fast and maybe shouldn't leave any impression at all for the speed with which it races through itself . Still, the details that make it stick. The fracture of society, the way that cult members chant out the thoughts of another, the stalking of the hemogoblin, all of these are images that will stick with you, images that you won't be able to find anywhere else. Such is Powers' skill. But the rest of it feels like Powers doing what most of us are doing when we enter the book, feeling around this new world, trying to find our footing before moving off to see what we can see. Another novel in this vein of exploration would have been interesting, with perhaps a deeper examination of the themes that were starting to be raised here. But alas, where Powers wanted to go was somewhere a bit different. Oh well. It's nice to at least have this.
Dinner at Deviant's Palace is a science fiction novel with elements of fantasy. You can always expect the unexpected in a Powers novel, and this one adds a strange creature called a hemogoblin to the standard description of America-turned-wasteland. The novel was written long before the current obsession with post-apocalyptic vampires, and the hemogoblin isn't a vampire in the traditional sense, but blood does play a central role in the imaginative plot. Powers is an exceptional storyteller who often adds horrific elements to the stories he tells, usually to shed light on some horrifying aspect of the present, but no matter the plot device, his true subject has always been human nature.
It's been a hundred years since the age of electricity, and California as it once existed is long gone. The calendar is based on a deck of cards, brandy is used as currency, and residual radiation renders some places off limits. Trash men run loose -- not quite human, not quite robot, a little like a talking vacuum cleaner mated with a barbeque grill -- and the San Berdoo army is threatening to invade Ellay.
Gregorio Rivas is a musician, but he used to perform redemptions. At one point he was a Jaybird, then he rescued people from the Jaybirds. The Jaybirds worship Jaybush (the name's similarity to Jesus is no coincidence), an entity described at one point as an "interstellar limpet eel." The Jaybird sacrament, if taken repeatedly, erodes the mind -- or maybe it opens the mind -- but Rivas is still sharp. Now he sings and plays the pelican and wants nothing to do with the man who wants to pay him a huge sum of money to perform a redemption. But when he learns that the girl under Jaybird control is Urania Barrows, the girl he once loved, he has no choice but to bring her back. Before Rivas became a Jaybird, he spent some time in the depraved city on the outskirts of Ellay known as Venice (home of the Deviant's Palace). It is to Venice he returns in his search for Urania, although he fears she has been taken to the Holy City of Irvine.
On its surface, Dinner at Deviant's Palace is the story of Rivas' attempt to save Urania, but it's really a story about a different kind of salvation. Rivas has become self-centered and self-indulgent, enjoying the fruits of a well-paid life. During his quest for Urania, he rediscovers his empathy for others. Yet empathy can be crippling when survival depends on dispassionate strength. Rivas faces a choice between regaining his confidence but sacrificing his new-found empathy, or remaining a caring person, however weak and uncertain that makes him. Powers also explores the nature of obsession -- with religion, with love, with distorted memories.
Trying to understand exactly what's happening in Dinner at Deviant's Palace sometimes poses a challenge, but by the end, the novel makes sense ... more or less. Its internal logic is consistent even if it isn't always easily understood. Complex characters and a fun story with a serious theme make the novel worth the effort.
Aspects of this book have become quite common place in the SF movie world, that I can't help wondering just how many people read Powers. I can't give any examples here, 'cos I don't want to spoil the astounding revelations exposed throughout the book but if you read it, you'll know what I mean. And you should read it.
Amusing word plays - like the blood lusting Hemogoblin - show Powers humour to be unsubtle, unlike the plot, which is so full of sub-plots and different levels, that you can't help sharing the calm desperation of the main character as he sinks lower and lower into a reality he could not have suspected existed.
So: the tale IS about a man, Greg Rivas, bent on rescuing an old flame from the clutches of a religious cult, and the subsequent confrontation with the entity behind it. It IS NOT about this post-apocalyptic world the action is set in.
In my opinion, the one weak point of the novel is character development: Greg goes through several mood swings that don't mesh together well. But the plotting is strong, giving an envolving tale.
To those willing to taste this fanciful dinner, enjoy.