Steve Perry, Windowpane (Five Star, 2003)

I once wrote a negative review of The Rift, a mainstream disaster novel by Walter Jon Williams. Except for a sarcastic headline implying that the novel itself was a disaster, I didn't say that it was terrible or embarrassing or even memorably bad. But I did express my disappointment that Williams, an author whom I had long admired for his quirkiness and imagination, had wasted his valuable writing time creating such a relentlessly mundane book. Actually, I expressed it at some length.

That review appeared in a usenet group in which I previously raved about Williams' brilliant sf novels Aristoi, Metropolitan, and Days of Atonement. But did Williams come across any of those reviews? Oh, no. He popped in just in time to catch me jumping all over his misfired attempt at hitting the bestseller list. And then he heaped coals of fire upon my head by politely responding to a question I had posed in the review.

I felt incredibly guilty. About as guilty as I will feel if Steve Perry reads this review, but for completely different reasons.

Walter Jon Williams is a literate, original writer whose attempt at a conventional disaster novel fell flat. Steve Perry is an entertaining, guilty-pleasure writer whose attempt at literature is a bigger disaster than the giant earthquake that rips apart America in The Rift.

Steve Perry has written a Star Wars novel, episodes of Batman: The Animated series, and a bunch of novelizations. I know him from a series of novels about butt-kicking martial artists in a generic far-future setting, which include The Man Who Never Missed, Matadora, and Black Steel. Though Perry's characters are about one-and-a-third dimensional, his prose is passable at best, and his sex scenes can be ludicrous, he knows his martial arts and how to keep the pages turning. And beneath all that butt-kicking beats a heart that genuinely believes in true love, honor, and friendship forever, which lends an appealing sweetness to his tales of hard-living, hard-fisted, hard-(censored) heroes.

That heart is his downfall in Windowpane, a novel so painfully sincere that I wanted to roundhouse-kick it through a window. Perry is a good pulp writer. Windowpane is an obvious attempt to rise above that status. Every page of it shrieks out, "This is a labor of love! I am now an artist, not a hack! Wheee!"

The result is almost indescribably ghastly. But I'll do my best.

Windowpane is an urban fantasy, complete with a Charles de Lint-esque cover, about a man with a magic flute and his attempt to bring back the spirit of the 1960s. The musician, Flint McClelland, is not only an artist, a wizard, and a butt-kicking tai chi master, but is sensitive, streetwise, idealistic, intuitive, handsome, and great in bed. If you're reading this list and thinking, "I hate him already," trust me that you will hate him much more if you actually read the book.

The wonderful Flint is opposed in his attempt to bring back the wonderful sixties by an undercharacterized baddie who represents logic and science. She is imaginatively known as The Logician. When she impersonates a doctor, she calls herself Dr. Lojia. One of the characters remarks that this is clever of her. No, it isn't.

Flint's groovy quest is to assemble a series of objects, each associated with a year of the sixties, which will bring back all the good vibrations of the decade but not the bad stuff like the Vietnam war or institutionalized racism or presidents you wouldn't buy a used car from. Rule number one of writing: there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. When a writer has his hero doing the equivalent of picking out the truffles and leaving the weird green jellies, reader rebellion reigns.

To pull off this task, which is so dumb and hard to believe in that all the characters keep pointing out that it seems dumb and hard to believe in, Flint assembles a team of clichés: a sensitive nurse, a tough Vietnam vet, a hack Jewish TV writer who wants to quit the business and write a literary novel about the sixties and a black radical turned career woman who sleeps with white men for money.

O.K., the last isn't a cliché: she's worse than a cliché. She's a character who enjoys joking in stereotyped black dialect for the same sort of reasons that some gay people adopted queer as a badge of honor rather than an insult. I'm sure this characterization could be pulled off, but it isn't here. Every time she said something like "Sho', you says dat now," I became so embarrassed for Perry that I had to put down the book and breathe deeply to regroup.

The TV writer, believe it or not, is even more embarrassing. Dewitt critiques Flint's mission as if he were critiquing the novel itself. Openly deconstructing a story within the story itself may be intended to display the writer's cleverness or the underpinnings of story, but more often displays the writer's inadequacy. It's a tightrope along which highly skilled writers like Kelly Link or Jane Yolen can dance with ease, but which minimally skilled writers like Steve Perry topple from on the first step and with a resounding splat. Dewitt's critique openly points out how lame and arbitrary the plot is, and Perry's attempts at answering it only make it seem lamer and more arbitrary.

Dewitt and his own novel are over-obviously paralleled with Steve Perry and Windowpane:  "If he did it right, people would read his book, and they would laugh and cry and feel good and be moved."

This opus, which is clearly intended to represent Windowpane and which is described in glowing terms as an ambitious literary novel about the sixties, is called ... Hippie.

There is not enough room in a single review to detail all that is wrong with Windowpane.

There is a flashback in which the biker vet remembers being in a high school history class and putting his hand up a classmate's panties while the lights were turned off so the class could watch a movie. This exact same scene, with the names changed and the lines varied somewhat, but also presented as a flashback, is also in Black Steel. What the hell?! I donít know if this really happened to Steve Perry or whether it's a favorite fantasy or something he wishes happened, but self-plagiarism is still plagiarism.

Windowpane's implausibility, misguided stabs at heading off criticism by anticipating it, and classy approach to sex can be seen in microcosm in these lines: "She wore the same hospital greens all the patients did, but ... her pants were snug enough to reveal a tight and rounded ass and the cleft of her vagina ... She was almost a caricature of a nymphomaniac."

No kidding. And since when do hospital greens come in Spandex? Even the tightest cotton doesn't reveal that much detail.

The last five pages are less bad than the first four hundred and thirty-three, but they don't redeem the book.

My message to you, dear reader, is twofold:

  1. What's good for one isn't necessarily good for all. Some people love the sixties. Some people do not like self-righteous stoners and gag at patchouli. They would not herald the return of their least favorite decade. Similarly, deep, meaningful, ambitious novels suit Walter Jon Williams, and pulp fiction does not. The opposite is true for Steve Perry.
  2. If you want a romantic urban fantasy about idealistic musicians, read Emma Bull's War For the Oaks. If you want an edgy and elegiac dark fantasy about a magical/musical attempt to bring back the sixties, read George R. R. Martin's The Armageddon Rag. If you want a sophisticated and successful urban fantasy, read Williams' Metropolitan. If you want a pulp adventure with martial arts and true love, read Perry's Black Steel. If you want a primer in how not to write in any of the categories above, I suppose you could read Windowpane. But you could pick up the main points just by reading this review. I suggest that you do that instead.

[Rachel Manija Brown]