The Point Man
by Steve Englehart
The cover art of this book may lead one to expect a whimsical, comic-bookish fantasy in which a Vietnam war veteran turned disc jockey discovers a magical talent appropriate to someone who always volunteered to be "point man"—wherever he points his finger, magic happens. This mind trick is aided by the fact that author Englehart also wrote—besides a sequel to this book titled The Long Man
—several well-received graphic novels, including the serial that inspired Tim Burton's movie Batman
. A reader, like me, may make it all the way through the book before accepting the disappointing reality that the book's hero Max August (or, as he styles himself on the radio, Barnaby Wilde) never actually points his finger and shoots magic. Instead, he merely saves the free world from a Communist shaman's plot to subject it to the powers of Unbeing at the stroke of New Year 1981, San Francisco time.
Max's adventure isn't very lighthearted or whimsical, either. In fact, it is very grown-up, and may call for both an adult and an occult content advisory. Max starts to realize that he is in the middle of something big, hairy, and supernatural when he wakes up after a wild night of passion with his new boss, only to be attacked by an indoor storm cloud filled with eyes. Then a homicidal maniac takes a shot at him through the window of his studio. When he realizes that his boss/lover has also stolen an heirloom sculpture of a lion from his living room, Max starts to get really angry. He takes out some of his anger on a pop diva who has dropped by his studio for an on-air interview. But this proves to be a turning point, for Valerie Drake's mysterious agent is actually a 500-year-old wizard named Cornelius Agrippa.
Corny tries to prepare Max to understand what is going on. But it isn't until lightning fries one of his fans, and an FBI agent reveals that he has been targeted by the K.G.B.'s division of paranormal warfare, and a hitman gives him the fight of his life before killing himself in a freakishly gruesome way, that Max begins to accept that there are powers at work that he cannot explain. More surprisingly, when he tries to infiltrate the island hideout of the dark wizard who wants to end the world as we know it, Max survives capture, torture, and a long-winded, preposterous harangue, escaping with his sanity intact not because of his war experience, but because he, Max August, radio personality, is a wizard.
But it's not all hugs and Hogwarts from there on. The bad guys get Cornelius and turn him into a gibbering wreck. This leaves Max and Valerie with only a day or so to prepare for Armageddon at the Hyatt Regency, for which there is only one way to prepare: Sex Magick. Then it's a simple matter of stopping a ritual that will bring the world under darkness for a thousand years, trigger a force-10 earthquake that will cause California to sink into the Pacific, and turn the tide of the Cold War, at the crack between the years 1980 and '81. Fun times.
While it's always fun to read about people who know nothing about magic having to use it to save the world, I have to be honest about this book. I enjoyed large parts of it. But it did not really live up to my expectations. Some of it struck me as flat-out ludicrous; and given what I read most of the time, that's saying a lot. Other parts of it went in one eye and out the other, without calling up the usual imagery on my mind's movie screen, though I owe much of my love of reading to the fact that I can visualize almost everything I read.
Perhaps I am judging the book too harshly on the grounds that it is dated; perhaps at a later period, I could look back on a Cold War thriller with more sympathy toward the era it depicts. Or perhaps Steve Englehart's strange cocktail of ideological warfare, Vietnam flashbacks, music industry melodrama, and magic is simply a flavor too weird for my palate. Either way, I would recommend this book mainly to fans of Engelhart's comic-book creations and to readers who are game for a somewhat talky, slightly trashy, frankly bizarre take on magic set in the Bay Area in the final weeks of the Carter administration. As for me, I might read the sequel, just to see who wins the Cold War...
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 15+
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