Bewildering Stories

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Spider Robinson, Callahan’s Con

book review by Michael J A Tyzuk

Callahan's Con cover

Author: Spider Robinson
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 0765341654
Price: varies

I feel that I must make a confession: I have been, for a number of years now, a fan of Spider Robinson, especially the Callahan’s series and its spinoff, the Lady Sally McGee stories. As a result of this affliction I have been known, on occasion, to pun, which those closest to me have learned to tolerate because they understand that I’m not likely to be cured anytime soon.

I remember rejoicing last year when Spider’s most recent Callahan’s book, Callahan’s Con was released, but my joy was short lived because it was released in hardcover, and I am not only poor I am also notoriously cheap and $40 seems a little excessive to be spending on a book. So I bided my time and waited until the book was released in paperback, promising myself that I would pick it up the first time I saw it on the shelves. That day was today.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, the books chronicle the adventures of the denizens of a bar on Long Island called Callahan’s. The bar is owned and operated by one Mike Callahan, who is really a time traveller from the future who is tasked with defending the Earth from the first alien incursion. This incursion is of such force that it requires the use of a small, homemade nuclear bomb.

With their beloved bar destroyed, the patrons, lead by Jake Stonebender, rally themselves and open up a new bar called Mary’s Place. Mary’s Place enjoys about a year of blissful life until the day when Jake, through a series of hilarious mishaps vaguely reminiscent of an episode of The Three Stooges, seriously pisses off (and on) the aunt of a town inspector, who promptly shuts down the bar and has Jake arrested.

Just over a year later Jake, along with his wife and daughter and almost his entire clientele, gather up all of their possessions and move to Key West, the only city in the Known World where a group of bulletproof misfits who can be telepathic with each other almost at command can be shrugged off because other things are happening that are a lot stranger than that.

Callahan’s Con takes place some ten years after the group’s arrival in Key West and the establishment of their new bar, The Place. They have been at peace for all of those ten years, but that’s about to come to a horrific end.

The first sign of trouble comes in the form of a representative of the local Board of Education, who is tasked with making sure that the home schooling of Jake’s daughter, Erin, complies with Florida State standards for Education. Things progressively get worse when a mafioso named Tony Donuts Jr., or Little Nuts (don’t ask) arrives in the bar and starts demanding protection money.

Jake and his family quickly determine that the Board of Education can be dealt with reasonably easily, but Little Nuts is a legitimate threat. After consulting with a retired mafioso who lives not too far away they determine that the only way to drive him off is to con him into pursuing something a lot more valuable than the protection money he’s after. While all this is going on, Zoey, Jake’s wife, decides to put on the wrong belt and ends up in a place with no light, no heat, and no air. You tell me, can things really get much worse than that?

Of course, along the way there’s the usual collection of puns and sick jokes and puns and song parodies and puns and interesting characters — and did I mention the puns? If you’ve read previous Callahan’s books then the puns go without saying, but for those who are uninitiated deserve to be warned; there are moments in this book when you will throw it against the nearest wall and run screaming from the room.

That’s pretty much par for the course for a Callahan’s book, but there’s one thing about Callahan’s Con that sets it apart from the other Callahan’s books; an element of personal tragedy. Jake and his friends have saved the universe before, quite literally, but they’ve always come out of it relatively unscathed. But this time they’re all going to have to pay a very heavy price. This time Death walks into the bar, and he’s not leaving alone.

Reading the Callahan’s books can be an intensely personal experience. They’re written from the first person perspective of Jake Stonebender, and if you’re willing to open yourself to what’s going on then you cannot help but find yourself transported into his little corner of the universe. You start to feel what’s happening as much as you see it. It’s almost as if Jake and his friends become living, breathing entities to you, and that’s a rare thing in contemporary literature. I know I’m not anywhere near good enough to pull that one off, not yet anyway. About the only other writer I’ve ever encountered who could was the late Grand Master himself, Robert A. Heinlein. Perhaps that’s why a number of reviewers refer to him as the next Grand Master. I can’t claim to understand the phenomenon completely, but I do know this: when you sit down and read a Callahan’s book you will either love it or you will hate it. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground where Callahan’s is concerned.

What do I think? I think that this is probably one of the best Callahan’s books so far. And I also think that Spider’s going to be with us for a long while, so it’s only a matter of time before Jake and his friends come to visit us again. Personally, I look forward to it.

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