Jack Womack Book Reviews

by Mac Tonnies

Jack Womack's cautionary near-future novels are hip, strange and moving. A master of first-person narratation, Womack gets inside the heads of an unlikely cast of characters for whom our worst apocalyptic fears are everyday reality. Womack's books are characterized by visceral shocks and a deeply penetrating concern with the role of human beings when faced with the unbearable. Wildly emotional and colored by an expert grasp of language, Womack's canon is a must for anyone who thinks William Gibson's "Neuromancer" is the final word on cyberpunk.



"Going, Going, Gone," Jack Womack's last "Ambient" novel, is dark, hilarious and touched by the dementia that made "Elvissey" and "Terraplane" (Womack's other time travel novels) so much fun. While "Terraplane" and "Elvissey" show us an alernate world in the 1930s and 1950s, respectively, "Going, Going, Gone" opens in the 1960s, experienced by swinger/government agent Walter Bullitt. Plans to assasinate presidential hopeful Bobby Kennedy (in Bullitt's universe, JFK is am embittered record salesman) come to a jarring end when Bullitt escapes to the future, only to find out that the world he knows is on a transdimensional crash-course with another timeline. Psychedelic and menacing, "Going, Going, Gone" closes on a note of transcendence and dry optimism; Womack knows the obscure workings of history, and his ability to subvert the American Dream is uniquely arresting.



"Elvissey" is a wacky, haunting (and occasionally terrifying) novel--one of most original and uniquely affecting novels I've ever read. Womack's vision is fresh, thoughtful and touched by an studious eye for the bizarre. The plot, in essence, is straight-forward: members of a dystopian near-future travel back in time to kidnap Elvis Presley, who has achieved posthumous god-status. The protagonists try to present the future-shocked King to the people of the future to satiate their escalating craving for a messiah.

But what does Elvis think of his role in this scheme? And when a messiah is rendered into yet another product, does he become more or less what the consumer expects? Womack's answers to these questions make "Elvissey" the delight that it is. William Gibson has called this novel "a jarringly potent kick in the head." What else is there to say?



"Terraplane" is a rewarding transtemporal love story that shares a great deal of its plot with "Elvissey": visitors from our future go back in time--not to 1950s Memphis, but to a deranged alternate 1930s where slavery was only recently abolished and the AIDS epidemic has been prefigured by an extraterrestrial virus that causes heightened dexterity, intelligence--and certain death.

Womack's skewed look at our past is as frightening as any imagined future. "Terraplane" is a haunted examination of what it is to be human, laced with wit and sad romance. Definitely a trip worth taking.



When a schoolteacher demonstrates the ability to resurrect the dead, marketing kingpin Thatcher Dryden launches a campaign to exploit his potential as a messiah. Womack's narrative skill lies in his ability to make his future, as well as his characters, seem inevitable. This is the stuff of millennial nightmares.



"Random Acts of Senseless Violence" takes the form of a twelve-year-old girl's diary. The protaganist, Lola Hart, documents the collapse of the world she thinks she knows as New York City succumbs to exponentiating human and environmental brutality. Womack once again makes fascinating use of first-person narrative, showing us his dark near-future with snapshot urgency. "Random Acts of Senseless Violence" also features the wonderfully conceived street-speak readers of Womack's Dryco novels will recognize; Womack's linguistically charged narrative landscape is as topical as ever. "Random Acts of Senseless Violence" is perhaps Womack's most poignant novel to date: scathing, eerie and singularly distressing.



"Ambient" is the most brazenly "cyberpunk" of Womack's Dryco books, featuring a subculture of streetwise mutants who form the ambient urban population of the book's title. Womack delights in raucous violence and blistering social commentary, elegantly depicting a world where Elvis is worshipped as a god, bodyguards ritualistically remove vulnerable body parts before engaging in combat, and the stock market has been replaced by gladitorial roller-derby. This is Womack at his dystopian best, gleefully indulging in myths of the near future.



"Let's Put the Future Behind Us" is a brutal farce that takes us from Womack's disintegrating near-future milieu to post-Soviet Russia, where ex-bureaucrats and mobsters vie for political and economic control. Womack's protaganist is satisfyingly complex, and I enjoyed eavesdropping on his precarious love-life; one reviewer aptly compared "Let's Put the Future Behind Us" to a "Russian 'Bonfire of the Vanities'." "Let's Put the Future Behind Us" is wryly funny and often scary, showing readers a parallel world drunk on the promise of capitalism and steeped in its own turbulent past. Womack's first non-science fiction book is chilling, hilarious and all-too-believable.

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