George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards: The Reread

Body Snatchers and Eighties Angst — Wild Cards VIII: One-Eyed Jacks

Welcome back to the Wild Cards reread! We’re picking up with One-Eyed Jacks (Book VIII), which begins the third Wild Cards trilogy. Originally released in 1991, the Tor reprint comes out on August 7th with two new stories. As usual, separate authors wrote the individual chapters, which are tied together by a linking story. For the record, I’m reading this somewhat infamous trilogy for the first time (and I’m using the Tor reprint).

The action starts in 1988 and covers more than a year. The major plot thread is the “Jumper” storyline: A group has the power to jump into other people’s bodies to control, humiliate, and even murder them. These evil-doers also happen to be teenagers—it’s the 80s after all. Stranger Things, indeed.

Throughout the book, you get the real sense that the authors as a group were feeling and reacting strongly to the changing times. Statements such as “but these are the ‘80s” make a continuous refrain, Oddity considers the past and recognizes that “those were different times” (321). It’s the beginning of the Bush era, with a cultural shift taking place in the U.S. towards a more conservative, anti-drug, anti-wild card world. As one man explains, “the lines are getting drawn. If you’re for aces and jokers, you’re looking for trouble.” (418)

Chapter 1 (Interstitial Jerry #1)

In the short first chapter we’re introduced to Jerry, aka The Projectionist. He can change his form to look like other people. He got into some trouble previously back when he spent 20 years as a fifty-foot tall ape in Central Park Zoo. Now he’s back to his original self (unaged), living with his brother (Kenneth Strauss of the Latham, Strauss law firm) and Kenneth’s wife (Beth), and feeling lost and adrift. He’s obsessed with the prostitute Veronica.

Chapter 2 (Major Cody Havero)

Cody arrives in NYC to interview for a job at the Jokertown Clinic. She’s a one-eyed Vietnam vet and wildfire medic. A highly qualified doctor, she’d been a medic (“combat cutter”) in Vietnam, at Da Nang and Firebase Shiloh. I’ve always wanted to know more about the Joker Brigade, and Cody really begins to fill out the picture. A joker sergeant recounts: “Nobody gave a rat fuck about us. Attitude was, we get killed, that’s one less freak fouling the gene pool” (30). Injured joker soldiers would be taken to a ‘special’ facility: “Problem was, this ‘facility’ seemed to be located an hour’s flight out across the South China Sea. No muss, no fuss, just a thousand-foot-high dive into a telegram home to Momma” (31). Cody manages to put a stop to it and becomes the hero doc of the Joker Brigade.

Blacklisted from the medical profession for her stance on joker medical treatment, her only option now is to work for Tachyon. She’s a nat (or at least she thinks she is). On the subway she sees a monstrous and dangerous joker/ace preying on women; it has the ability to make women transform, then rapes them and eats them. Lost in NYC, she’s pursued by the monster joker. She battles the creature, but Tachyon helps her kill it.

Without question, this is my favorite female POV chapter of the entire series: Cody’s capable, tough, no-nonsense—a hero and a champion. Her story is a wonderfully-written, sophisticated portrait of a real woman, with a viewpoint and background unlike anything we’ve seen in the Wild Cards world prior to Book VIII. The only thing that I disliked was the implication that some sort of amorous future might exist between Tachyon and Cody. That seems a bit inconsistent with her character, given that she’s too much of an experienced badass to put up with him.

One other thing I loved about this chapter is that we get our first look at the indigenous North American understanding of the wild card. Cody says, “They view the world as a living being, as much so as humanity itself. They see what the wild card does to people, they wonder if it can twist—even murder—the planet the same way” (37, see also p. 47). It’s a fascinating new conception of the wild-card virus’ impact on the world.

Chapter 3 (Interstitial-Jerry #2)

Jerry meets with his doctor Tachyon, then attends Hiram’s Wild Card Day dinner at Aces High with his sister-in-law Beth as his date. He sees Veronica there with Croyd. Later he changes his appearance and hires her for the night, but can’t go through with it.

Chapter 4 (Trudy Pirandello)

Trudy’s chapter is one of the new stories added to the older novel as part of its new reprint. In this chapter, the secret ace Trudy attends a Republican fundraising event in order to steal some treasure. She’s a thief, specializing in jewelry, artworks, and luxury items; her power allows her to teleport items from one location to another (e.g., her purse). The dinner takes place in the Golden Tower of real estate mogul Duncan Towers (i.e., Donald Trump), in Catherine the Great’s famous Amber Room, purchased from the Soviets and installed in Towers’ gaudy skyscraper. Also in attendance is Jessica, the girl who can miniaturize living things, and Croyd, whose current power enables him to animate inanimate objects, making them come alive. The three aces join together to steal the entire Amber Room and embarrass Towers.

To be honest, I had trouble with this chapter. It exhibits the danger of adding present-day works to older, previously published books. Usually the writing in the Wild Card books plainly represents a particular era, when a group of authors were all working together to tell a story which invariably reveals concerns and worldviews germane to that time period. The present chapter patently derives from the beginning of the Trump presidency, and it fantasizes about Trump’s humiliation and viciously insults him (and the Republicans: Dan Quayle’s wife is “horse-faced”). It criticizes Trump for greed, ostentatious displays of wealth, selfishness, lack of taste, and for his appearance. Rather than a political or social commentary, the chapter is one large ad hominem attack, calling Trump/Towers a “cartoon frog” (79) with an unnatural appearance, who “lov[es] the sound of his own voice” (82), a fondler of sculptures’ breasts, “an orange dragon with a blond toupee” (109). Even for those on the left (full disclosure: like me), this chapter will likely come across as mean-spirited and cruel. For me, it just didn’t fit with the rest of the book.

Chapter 5 (Veronica)

We’ve met Veronica several times before One-Eyed Jacks. Veronica was one of Fortunato’s prostitutes, unknowingly infected during the Typhoid Croyd epidemic. She’s unhappy and empty, forced to see a doctor (Hannah) about her rampant heroin addiction. Veronica realizes that not only has she never enjoyed sex with men, but that she is a lesbian. She falls desperately in love with Hannah, moves in with her, and quits her prostitution job. Sadly, Hannah is suddenly possessed—someone else controls her body—and murders a bystander before she is left alone in her body again. Veronica comes undone. Thanks to a run-in with some condescending dude, she has something of an angry feminist moment, and it’s then that her card turns. It’s not clear yet what her power is, but it involves electricity and causes men to collapse. She rushes to the prison to break Hannah out of jail—only to discover that Hannah had been possessed again and hanged herself in her cell. Overall, I rather like Veronica’s feminist awakening, though there are a few hints that this depiction is going to go the direction of the man-hating “Feminazi” stereotype, which I really hope isn’t the case. Back in the ‘80s (and ‘90s), the label “feminist” was consistently applied with scorn, though, so I’m interested to see how Veronica develops.

Chapter 6 (Interstitial Jerry #3)

Jerry keeps looking for Veronica. He hires Jay Akroyd to help him find her and to investigate Hannah’s death, recognizing that David Butler, one of the Jumpers, is a suspect.

Chapter 7 (Ben Choy)

After a long wait, this chapter finally brings us a Lazy Dragon story. A Chinese-American ace who works for the Shadow Fist Society, Ben Choy longs for a closer connection with Chinese culture and has named his ace after a character from Chinese literature. Like the 16th century Lazy Dragon, our ace is skilled at disguises and is sent on a quest to steal a prized artifact. A new power in the Shadow Fist Society (Leslie Christian) commands him to recover a stolen packet of rapture and then transport it to Ellis Island. The most significant thing we learn about Ben while he undertakes the task is that he shares his body with his sister Vivian. Ben takes the form of a lethal dragon to recover the drugs, then a polar bear to swim them across to Ellis Island. There, he discovers a crew of jokers squatting in what’s today the Immigration Museum. Surprisingly, the Wild Card stories have not visited Ellis Island previously. In addition to jokers, David Butler and his teenage crew also live there—and they have the ability to project themselves into other bodies (‘jump’). One jumps the polar bear. Ben is pushed from his ursine body, and while disoriented, his sister Vivian takes over the driver’s seat back in the apartment. Their body becomes female.

Chapter 8 (Interstitial Jerry #4)

Jerry watches the verdict announcement in Hiram’s trial. There’s a plea bargain—guilty of involuntary manslaughter—and the judge gives him the astonishingly light sentence of five years’ probation. As a response to the verdict, riots break out in Jokertown that night, a fictional detail anticipating the real-life Rodney King riots that occurred the following year (1992). Jerry witnesses David inciting a mob and tries to enlist Tachyon’s help to catch him. David goes on the run.

Chapter 9 (Mark Meadows)

Mark (Captain Trips & Co.) gets served with court papers; his ex-wife Kimberly seeks custody of Sprout. She’s engaged St. John Latham as her attorney; Mark hires Dr. Pretorius. His new lawyer makes it clear that Mark is unlikely to keep custody, what with his headshop, weed-smoking, and wild cards ways. Mark straightens up his image. He goes clean as well, all except for those magic powders that release his alt-personalities. Meanwhile, Kimberly visits Sprout and Mark on a series of pseudo-dates, during which we get a psychological glimpse at her character. Previously, she’d been presented in a rather one-sided way, but here she gets some depth. The custody trial is vicious on both sides. In desperation, Kimberly allows Latham to set Mark up in order to publically reveal how dangerous he is. Latham sets an apartment on fire with a little girl trapped inside. Mark transforms and saves her. When Kimberly realizes that she almost caused the death of someone else’s daughter, she cracks and ends up in a private clinic. Because everyone has witnessed Mark taking drugs to become an ace, the judge remands him to the DEA and declares Sprout a ward of the State. Mark escapes and goes on the lam.

This is by far the most mature Mark Meadows story yet. Rather than fighting a villain or other crisis, Mark must face off against real life and adulthood. He wrestles with the changing times and his own identity.

Chapter 10 (Interstitial Jerry #5.1)

Jay Akroyd fills Jerry in on his investigation into David Butler. Jerry heads off to spy in Latham’s office, wearing Latham’s face, and has sex with Fantasy while he’s disguised as Latham. This is very much a Revenge of the Nerds moment (i.e., Lewis dressed as Darth Vader having sex with the cheerleader). Fantasy did not consent to have sex with Jerry; she consented to have sex with Latham. Therefore, Jerry is a rapist.

He goes home and feels sorry for himself because women don’t like him (can’t imagine why), before having a fight with Beth. She lays into him: “You’re not just lazy, you’re an emotional six-year-old. You don’t see anyone’s feelings or needs but your own. And you’ll never get along with women as long as they’re just something you do to make yourself feel more adequate” (269). Guess she doesn’t realize that he’s also a rapist! Jerry moves out.

Chapter 11 (Lady Black)

Like Trudy’s story, this chapter’s one of the new additions added to the original book. It’s about Joann Jefferson, an ace who works for SCARE and has the dangerous ability to absorb energy from the world around her (including people). She’s buds with the recovering Billy Ray, but gets called up to NYC to investigate a wild card mystery for the NPS. Animal skins have been showing up with nothing inside them. Joann discovers that the culprit is a homeless kid who sucks out the animal’s insides. She tries to get him help at the Jokertown Clinic, but the kid doesn’t want it. What he does want is to be accepted at Ellis Island. When she sees the kid try to suck on the joker ferryman Charon, Joann has to step in, but she accidently kills him.

Chapter 12 (Interstitial Jerry #5.2)

Originally this section was part of the previous interstitial, but it was separated out when Joann’s chapter was added. Jerry decides he has nothing left to live for and plans to go after David in a suicide run. He fails in his efforts to kill David.

Chapter 13 (The Oddity: Evan, Patto, and John)

This chapter finally gives us the Oddity’s story. Originally three people engaged in a polyamorous relationship, the wild card merged them together in 1973. Sixteen years later, they still occupy three shifting bodies painfully forced into one. Their three minds share the physical agony and rotate control of the body. They come across David and company terrorizing a joker. David jumps into the Oddity and switches places with Patti, and the other jumpers whisk David’s body back to Ellis Island (“the Rox”). Patti is able to wake up and overhears that David (“the Prime”) can share the jumping ability with others by having sex with them. Both David and Bloat tempt Patti and Evan with new bodies and freedom from the Oddity. When the trio make it to Ellis Island to rescue Patti, David jumps back to his own body and is killed by Evan. Patti, Evan, and John are happy to be reunited despite the pain and lost chance at freedom. The experience of separation reinforces their love for each other.

Chapter 14 (Interstitial Jerry #6)

Jerry attends David’s funeral in disguise. He sees Latham sobbing in the bathroom. He continues his efforts to be a detective.

Chapter 15 (Tachyon)

Tachyon’s story takes place a year after Cody’s arrival at the Clinic. Blaise and Cody’s son have become friends, and Tachyon is still sweating Cody. I’ve lost track of how many Tachyon-love stories there’ve been so far. Cody hasn’t given in, but she’s sadly not averse to the idea. DON’T DO IT, CODY! Also turns out that Blaise is obsessed with her, and he really hates his grandfather. Blaise gifts Cody with stolen jewels and declares his love for her. After she knocks him down a notch, Blaise attempts mind-control-forced sex with her, but Tachyon saves the day. His grandson goes on the run and joins those other rebellious hoodlums, the jumpers. In an initiation ceremony, the unnamed Prime has sex with Blaise in order to give him jumping powers; we can assume that the guy is David and that he’s probably in Latham’s body.

Chapter 16 (Interstitial Jerry #7)

Jerry’s brother Kenneth begins to worry about Latham’s hold over him. Jerry has to register with the government, which is trying to conscript and control wild cards. We learn that the government has a joker classification system. Useful ones are called “type-two jokers”. At lunch with his brother, Kenneth is possessed by the jumpers and killed.

Chapter 17 (Fadeout)

Philip Cunningham’s story gives us a more detailed look at some familiar characters from the Shadow Fist Society, as well as adding some cool details about wild card powers (like Warlock’s “death wish”). A week before he and Warlock attempt their coup, Cunningham finds Kien Phuc murdered in his office. Finally! Able to determine that a redhead (Blaise) killed Kien, Cunningham engages in a struggle for control of the organization (goodbye, Sui Ma). Latham leads him and the Werewolves to Blaise’s new lair in a Bowery theatre to collect Kien’s head so that Deadhead can eat it. He underestimates the teenage posse, though. Leslie Christian turns out to be in league with them…except these are jumpers, so Christian isn’t Christian at all, but actually Kien! Damn it! Didn’t see that one coming. Warlock turns on Cunningham and the chapter ends with Fadeout’s death.

Chapter 18 (Interstitial Jerry #8)

Jerry plans a hit on Latham and is able to catch him in his apartment. Latham-David is there with another jumper, who jumps into Jerry. His shape-changing body ousts her, though, and he’s able to get away. Meanwhile, Beth and Jerry have become friends again during the grieving process, in the wake of Kenneth’s death. She moves into Jerry’s apartment. He feels like he’s finally grown up a little, and has learned something about love.

 

So, that’s One-Eyed Jacks. As a first-time reader, I thought this was a solid start to a new trilogy. The jumpers are a dastardly group, but so far they’re rather on the gentle side (compared to villains like the Astronomer, Puppetman, and Ti-Malice). It seems pretty clear, though, that now that Blaise has joined them, they’re moving to the Dark Side with a quickness. They’re consistent with wild card Big Bads up to this point in that their powers involve controlling other people against their will. Reading about the jumpers reinforces to me how interested the original authors were in issues of hidden identities, control-of-self, and personhood. Just think of how frequently that comes into play here: Jerry can impersonate anyone, Cody’s monster changes the appearance of his victims, Lazy Dragon has a sister living inside him, Mark Meadows transforms into different personalities, the Oddity is three people combined in one, Blaise can control the minds of others, and now the jumpers permanently inhabit other bodies (David-Latham, Kien-Christian).

Stay tuned to see where the trilogy takes us next with Jokertown Shuffle.

 

Katie Rask is an assistant professor of archaeology and classics at Duquesne University. She’s excavated in Greece and Italy for over 15 years.

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