James Blaylock’s The Last Coin is a bit of a divisive book, with opinions running the gamut from awful to fantastic to boring. One thing everyone seems to agree on: it’s unique.
Jules Pennyman is an ambiguously evil, dapper ghoul of a person who is attempting to collect the 30 silver coins that were paid to Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus. They’re still floating about the world, are now magic, and posess some never-quite-specified power when in the posession of a single person. Or maybe it’s just when they’re all really close together – that, too, is never entirely clear. What, precisely, Pennyman wants the coins for isn’t stated, but it seems to have something to do with paving the entire world and destroying all of nature.
As the story opens, Pennyman has found something like 28 of the coins – enough of them that he’s gotten really good at kind of sensing where the next one will be, and so he finds himself in the improbable location of Seal Beach California, staying at a recently opened bed and breakfast with a soon-to-open restaurant. The bed and breakfast is run by Rose and Andrew Vanbergen and houses Rose’s aunt Naomi as a guest. Naomi is bankrolling the operation, and Andrew, a born loser and terminal dreamer, is mostly idling the money away on not-necessarily-horrible plans for the business that he never really manages to follow through on. Pennyman is here – unbeknownst to either him or Andrew at the outset of the story – because Andrew is about to come into posession of the special-est of the 30 coins in the form of one of Rose’s family heirlooms.
As for plot, well, there isn’t really any. You mostly just watch Andrew and his friend conspiracy theorist Beams Pickett do unaccountable things – sometimes screwing up, succeeding way more often than they have any right to. There’s a kind of low grade rivalry between Pennyman and Andrew in which they both (Andrew more than Pennyman) do really childish things to try to antagonize each other. And of course it all comes to a head in the end, when the presence of the titular Last Coin forces the rivalry into something more serious. Pennyman is, after all, trying to destroy the world (or at least radically alter it), and Andrew is duty-bound to stop him. Judas Iscariot is here too – he’s the Wandering Jew of legend in this work, much like in George R. R. Martin’s The Way of Cross and Dragon, here tasked with keeping the coins apart for all eternity – but not in the way you expect.
Not that there’s anything to spoil, but SPOILER ALERT – Andrew does manage to save the world in the end, albeit in a thoroughly unsatisfying, deus ex machina way. This isn’t one of those books you read for story, suspense, or plot.
You read it for character, for dialogue, and, most of all, for its general quirkiness.
At first, it’s just too cute. It seems to be trying way too hard. Andrew is too self-consciously strange, and simultaneously too bumbling. For the first third or so, it’s like one of those awkward comedy shows where the guy on stage is bombing and you can’t decide whether to throw him a laugh out of pity or just leave. But if you stick with it, an amazing thing happens, and you start to appreciate just how inventive these characters are. One too many times, someone’s inner monologue goes to a place you just weren’t expecting, and so after a time you have to – grudgingly at first, appreciatively later – admit that a lot of imagination went into this. Once your defenses are worn down, you realize that Jules actually is creepy, in a low-key way, and that Andrew is a lot more capable than he seems, and that some characters who seemed harmless are actually evil, and that the owls are not what they seem … and that, unexpectedly, it’s a really good book. Not everyone’s cup of tea to be sure, but by the end I had thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I know that I will read it again someday.
What it has going for it, really, are two key things. First, it does that thing I like where it talks about things of cosmic importance in mundane terms. As Reginald Foster was fond of pointing out to his students, Latin was spoken fluently by every 1st century whore long before it was the holy language of the priesthood. That the characters in this story are technically fighting a cosmic battle of good versus evil for the fate of the world, but are only dimly aware of it and are anyway so easily distracted by their petty attempts to one-up each other that they could barely concentrate on it if they were, is just kind of cool. "Seinfeldian" isn’t exactly the right word, but it’s not really the wrong word either. Second, the characters’ thoughts go to unexpected, but believable, places, and it’s very well done. Freqneutly in this book someone will be thinking to himself about something, and the train of thought will go to a distinctly abnormal place, and you the reader can see exactly where it went off the rails, but it’s never implausible or gimmicky. People, you slowly realize, really do think like this, including you yourself. It’s always surprising, never unbelievable.
So, I highly recommend this book. I won’t say there’s nothing grudging about that recommendation: it really is the kind of book that makes you want to hate it at first. You can’t, in the end, though. It’s too well-written, the characters are too compelling, and the central idea is too inventive. It makes you like it. And so you do.
Overall Rating B+