On the surface, which is always a dangerous place to be in a Gene Wolfe book, Free Live Free is a seemingly mainstream story, with strong elements of farce and screwball comedy, about four misfits and no-hopers who meet by taking advantage of an unusual offer of free accommodation, before becoming involved in a quest to find their missing benefactor, who they believe possesses a mysterious and lost treasure that could benefit all or any of them.
This is an accurate description of this book.
It’s equally superficial to say that this prolongedly mainstream tale, which flits backwards and forwards between its four principals then takes an awkward left turn into an implausible SF conclusion that has no connection with the initial 95% of the book, and which never quite explains itself.
This much is also true and accurate.
But by now it must be apparent that the words ‘no connection’ are singularly inappropriate to a Gene Wolfe book, and that the reader who knows this will have kept his or her eyes open throughout and will have realised far sooner that there is something going on that we, Madame Serpentina, Jim Stubb, Osgood M. Barnes and Candy Garth are not being told about.
And the reader who is on their second or subsequent approach to the story will at some point realise, with a deep sense of foreboding, that Free Live Free is a deeply disturbing story, and that it is the prelude to a horror story that never quite arrives but which, by the end, is inevitable as sin, and that no part of the snowy Chicago winter that these events occupy can be as cold as what will come after.
Read in one fashion, Free Live Free is an archetypal fantasy quest story. A group of strangers, each with their own unique abilities and attributes, band together to seek a magical object that is a passport of some kind to some higher state of being or existence. A story told many times over: The Lord of the Rings for one.
But practically no quests are set in the midst of a Chicago winter, among dilapidated and condemned houses, small hotels, railway stations, bars and a mental asylum, nor do they feature homeless, penniless, friendless strangers, who between them are a seeming mystic and probable conwoman, an unlicensed private investigator, a one-eyed salesman of cheap, gimcrack novelties, and an overweight, alcoholic prostitute.
The set-up is that all four have responded to an advert under the heading ‘Free Live Free’. It has been placed by elderly Ben Free, who is living in a dilapidated house condemned to demolition, and who is inviting tenants to live free in return for helping him keep the house standing.
This draws four people. Madame Serpentina, who presents herself as a mystic, and is known as such, is sultry, exotic, attractive and mysterious. She speaks in a mixture of tongues and dialects, is an accomplished conwoman and would rather search alone for old man Free’s missing key, his passport to the High Country, hidden in a wall somewhere, but finds herself all but blackmailed into partnering with, first Jim Stubb, then the other two. She is, it appears, a gypsy named Marie.
Jim Stubb, a very short and short-sighted man, would be a private investigator if he could afford the licence. He has the analytical mind common to many of Wolfe’s characters, able to piece together disparate information to perceive a situation that the reader would not otherwise understand, but his height cripples him psychologically. His employment is as a legman for real PI’s, doing stake-out and trailing jobs, but he scratches for pennies, and is attracted to those rare women – of whom two appear in the book – who are even shorter than him.
Ozzie Barnes is a salesman. It’s suggested that once he was a good one, of good materials, married with a wife and a son, Little Ozzie, and he’s still an inveterate salesman but his goods are cheap, nasty and frequently of an adolescent sexuality, things that reveal a naked woman if you do this, that or the other. He has a generous, or at least unselfish bent, and he knows how certain types of people think, but not very far underneath, he’s desperate and lonely, an answerer of Lonely Hearts ads with hopefully misleading and old-fashioned letter.
And Candy Garth. Some people have problems with how Wolfe writes women, and it’s with such creations as Candy that I can see their point. In some reviews, Candy is described as a sex therapist, and it may well be that she has a knack for understanding the wants and needs of her quasi-formal clients, but it would be more honest to call her what she is, a part-prostitute. Candy is blonde, relatively young and massively overweight, straining at her clothes. She’s a glutton and a drunkard, forever in search of the permanent satisfaction of her wants, which don’t visibly extend beyond food, drink and sex. She meets Ozzie’s son, Little Ozzie, by coincidence: his mother has abandoned him to his absent father whilst she goes off with her boyfriend, by sending him by train to Chicago. But she quickly forgets about him when something puts her in a rage, and the attack she goes off on gets her held in the aforementioned asylum, starting a long and farcical sequence where everybody gets locked in, for one reasonable reason or another, and it all steadily gets further out of control.
Despite varying degrees of ingenuity, the quartet fail to keep Free’s house from being wrecked, and in the confusion the old man goes missing. Everybody ends up hanging out in the hotel room Madame Serpentina has scammed into for her own use, and agrees to team up to look for him and his ‘passport’ to the High Country. It’s partly out of genuine concern for the benefactor who took them in, but when it’s learned Free is dead, apparently a mugging victim, their concern transfers wholly to the ‘passport’.
What it is, they have no idea, though fittingly Stubb comes the closest, seeing Free as the ‘black sheep’ member of an upper Class family who revolted against wealth, yet kept a way back in.
But as the story moves along, each of our quartet are separated, by people known to them or whom they might normally trust, each of whom lead them along paths that offer them the things they want, things that satisfy. Some of them recognise, afterwards, that they have been put under a test, to see how they can handle their desires. Each of them, to differing degrees, fails, and Madame Serpentina and Stubb are both honest enough and perceptive enough to recognise this.
Failures lose, are rejected, usually. But despite their failings, the quartet have been driven back together. They are shown the ‘passport’, they are taken to the High Country. And suddenly, what has been a very down to earth book, literally, with glimpses of a horror shot through at differing times, becomes a completely different fiction, a fiction of the kind more usually associated with Gene Wolfe.
It is as if 95% of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has consisted of the games of John, Susan, Edward and Lucy, and they had only travelled to Narnia ten pages from the end, to the eve of battle.
It’s an awkward ending, one that sits uneasily with everything else, and it is not entirely an ending, not even with a one page epilogue that indicates what decision our quartet have made.
But the reader approaching this ending for the second time has knowledge. And maybe he or she has made a connection. Between the prediction Madame Serpetina makes to Sandy Duck of Psychic Monthly, and the paranoid fears of Sergeant Proudy after he brains himself with his own axe, and the last line of the book.
From there, you make your own choice as to how this story really ends, in pages far beyond the last point at which Wolfe writes. Despite what Ben Free says, about what happens after you get your greatest desires, my reaction was one of horror. It’s how I can see this book. Crazy, lively, farcical, frantic, deep-lying… and frightening.
Make your own reading of it.