Violence is condemned by all right-thinking people. Violence is the subject of public service announcements on television telling us, Don't do it. Violence marks the perpetrator as a subhuman monster unfit for human society. Violence viewed by children is controlled by V-chips in our TV's and restrictive ratings on our movies and video games.
How should we feel about a fictional hero who routinely resorts to violence? For many readers, this dilemma creates a sense of unease they don't quite know how to handle. Drawn to the excitement, the tension inherent in violent action, they may linger in their enjoyment of this guilty pleasure even though they tell themselves they "should" be repulsed by what they are reading. And yet...
This seeming paradox lies at the heart of the latest Repairman Jack novel, Crisscross, by F. Paul Wilson. In exploring the intersection -- the crisscrossing -- of Jack's inner soul with the external threats he faces in serving his clients, we come to a better understanding of this individual who stands, alone, at the crossroads between legality and criminality, between public life and private seclusion, between order and chaos.
Wilson dedicates this book to his mother, "even though certain sections will appall her." Long-time readers of Jack's adventures and travails can well imagine that the average person would be aghast if confronted with this character's behavior in the real world. Anyone who nurses a reflexive repulsion to violence would doubtless denounce Jack's exploits as a rank example of using illicit means to accomplish "good" goals. After all, any school child is (or should be) taught that the "end never justifies the means."
Yet in Jack's fictional universe as well as our own real world, the context is not quite that simple.
In Crisscross, Jack must solve two seemingly unconnected problems for two rather mysterious women. His first client, Maria Roselli, asks Jack to find her son, Johnny, who is involved with a new religious order, the Dormentalist Church. Echoing Scientology in its secretiveness and control of its members, the Dormentalists have exploited the wonders of Madison Avenue to become a rich and powerful force in society. But they vehemently deny any resemblance of their organization to a "cult."
As Jack works to penetrate the most protected inner realms of the Dormentalists, he links up with a journalist, Jamie Grant. This rough-edged woman writes for the The Light and gained insights into the church when she targeted it for exposure as a fraud. This is the same maverick newspaper that threatened Jack's anonymity in Hosts when reporter Sandy Palmer witnessed Jack's violent elimination of a spree killer on a New York City subway.
In the midst of his investigation, Jack crosses paths with a different church. A nun, Maggie O'Hara, is squirming under the thumb of a blackmailer who threatens to release compromising photos of her that will destroy all she has worked to achieve. The criminal who is bleeding Sister Margaret dry is yet another old acquaintance of Jack's, private investigator and general scum bag Richie Cordova. In seeking a way to extricate his second client from her predicament, the first of the linkages between the two cases is forged when Jack decides to use the extra money given him by Roselli to cover Maggie's financial deficit.
As events move inexorably towards the climax detailed in Nightworld, Jack knows that what previously could have been passed over as nothing more sinister than innocent happenstance now carries deeper import. No more coincidences will occur in his life. Events, people, decisions are bound together in a tightening web of threads, bisecting each other as the Otherness and the Ally play their cosmic game of one-upmanship.
This sense of entrapment can only grate on Jack. His raison d'etre is self-control, self-direction, self-ownership. To be an unwitting and then unwilling pawn in the machinations of unseen forces clashes with the essence of Jack's values, Jack's identity, Jack's soul. Yet buried deep within that very soul may lie the reason he has been selected to fulfill a destiny not of his own choosing.
In The Tomb, Jack exacted revenge for his mother's death by killing her murderer in a most ingenious and gruesome fashion. In doing so, he unleashed a part of himself that had never before found expression. Since he knows the darkness dwelling deep inside him can lead to behavior that would horrify most of his fellow human beings, most of the time Jack keeps that black nucleus buried. Time and again, however, that aspect of who he is roars to the surface.
Unlike others who commit violence, though, Jack realized early on that he could not -- would not -- hide behind a convenient yet illusory "loss of control" or "temporary insanity." His decisions were his -- are always his -- made with a crystal clarity startling in its intensity. No excuses. No absolution. No apologies or regrets.
In Crisscross, that submerged shard of ultra-violence erupts in all its vicious power and authority when the unpredictability intrinsic to human freewill thwarts Jack's most carefully laid plans. Despite the frustration and outrage boiling within him, Jack acknowledges with ironclad certainty that he could no more violate that essence of humanity than he could deny the reality of who and what he is.
When Jamie Grant refuses to follow his advice, a fleeting impulse flickers through Jack's thoughts, an impulse that far too frequently finds full expression in the decisions and actions of people around him:
Jack recognizes that the same is true of everyone: each person's life is his own, to risk or waste or nurture as he best sees fit. Other people's wishes or desires must be subordinated to that central tenet of humanity or we will lose the very quality that defines us as human beings.
In Wilson's Adversary Cycle, the Otherness seeks to engender loss of control. It is the proponent and agent of chaos, of dissolution, of disorder and confusion. Even in creating a bubble of "no coincidences" around Jack that appears to increase control over Jack's life, the Otherness is disrupting the normal forces of cause and effect that govern our world, our existences. The self-control that is Jack's birthright and his brilliant guiding star is jarred and jostled as his enemy maneuvers to send his life spinning into confusion and disarray.
The Otherness, however, is doomed to defeat. For it misapprehends Jack's true nature. Indeed, it misreads the gritty texture of the human spirit. The extreme violence that coexists with Jack's most fervent desire simply to be left alone is not something to be feared, is not a contradiction of Jack's self. While the Otherness may envision turning Jack's violence to its own purposes, it suffers from an abysmal failure of imagination.
Though Jack's violence is superficially similar to that wielded by the tools of the Otherness -- vivid examples of which occur in Crisscross -- the violence Jack sets loose is different in kind. The similarity in quality may fool the less perceptive, but contrary to the common belief discussed at the beginning of this review, not all violence is created equal. The Otherness employs violence against innocent bystanders in its quest to impose pandemonium. Jack's violence, however, is not even a case of bad means utilized in the service of good ends. His carefully planned and controlled and directed violence is the epitome of morality: actions designed to preserve human life or to achieve justice against those who claim disorganization and evil as their masters.
The line that separates good violence from bad is thin and too often too easily breached. As many people innocently or ignorantly cross that line as deliberately seek out the kind of violence cultivated by the Otherness.
Because of the purity and incandescence of his commitment to that which is right, that which is the best within us all, Jack stands as an exemplar of the heroic possibilities open to mankind. Thus he also stands, alone, in the whirlpool created by the convergence of the forces of the Otherness and the Ally, a bulwark against the shadowy designs of the former and the studied indifference of the latter, supported only by an ill-defined third force embodied at the moment by a series of old women and their dogs.
In the protection he offers against the chaos constricting his personal universe, Jack mirrors the kind of society envisioned by the creators of the State that is now his enemy. In the world envisioned by the Founders of this nation, the State used violence -- force -- only against those who sought to murder, rape, or rob their peaceable neighbors. In the decades and centuries since that auspicious beginning, however, the government that is supposed to protect the innocent, the weak, the helpless has abandoned its moral mandate. Instead of defending our rights, the State has crossed to the side of the Otherness. It uses the violence at its disposal in a vain attempt to manage and contain the desires, the choices...the lives...of the citizens it is supposed to serve. The result of its grasping efforts at directing our private worlds is nothing more than a self-contradictory and ever-expanding loss of control.
Jack understands the peril we face. He wrestles with it every day as he copes with a society that grows ever more alien to the human heart, as he conveys a message plain in its statement yet profound in its implications: Do not cross Jack. But unlike Jesus who died on a cross for undeserving sinners, Jack is determined to do something much harder and much less appreciated in today's disintegrating world: he is determined to live.
That is a lesson we all would do well to learn.
(For a further exploration of the nature of "good" violence, see my essay, "In Praise of Violence.")