Steven Barnes has always been an ambitious writer. However, in his intense early novels, his ambitions were tightly focused. In Streetlethal (1983), Barnes gave us Aubry Knight, the ultimate martial artist, sidetracked from his goal of winning a zero gravity combat title through a series of tense complications. In later works, such as Blood Brothers (1996), Barnes continued to write intense thrillers, but wound in examinations of the meanings of race, family, and heritage. Charisma, his most recent novel, raises his thrillers to another level of complexity, and offers in the process Barnes's most direct commentary on all of these subjects.
The term "commentary" is a bit threatening, making it sound like Charisma is clogged by chunks of didactic exposition. I hasten to add that just the opposite is true. Barnes opens with a scene in which we follow thirteen year old Tanesha Evans through the streets of contemporary Los Angeles. Barnes not only makes Evans' sheer exuberance come to life with consummate ease, he also shows us L.A. through her eyes, in ways that transform its disintegrating neighborhoods into landscapes of wonder, family, and adventure. By the time Barnes ends this preface with tragic finality, he has created a cluster of mysteries, any one of which would be enough to capture a reader's interest. The next chapter opens with a jump across time, geography, and race, but also with a confident voice honed through decades of writing. I was hooked. I burned through the book's 380 pages that evening, turning every page till the last one, and wishing for more of this contemporary thriller.
I don't want to spoil any of Charisma's mysteries for the reader, who should be allowed to enjoy them for himself, but there is a lot that can be said about the novel without tipping Barnes's hand. To start with, one of the first things that Charisma does well is build a complex narrative, and even that statement is unfair to the novel. Barnes tells the story of a group of very special children, a handful of mature adults, several striking and heroic senior citizens, families, workplaces, and the town of Vancouver, Washington. As he does so, he interweaves an ambivalent parable of heroism and violence, the story of the mysterious Alexander Marcus.
Marcus was a Black war hero and entrepreneur, who had been entertaining political ambitions before mysterious circumstances cut his career short. In a number of books, Barnes has employed the device of a crucial, powerful figure who is kept off-screen for some reason. In The Kundalini Equation (1986), for example, Barnes did this with martial arts guru Savagi. For an adventure writer, the advantages of doing this are obvious. A figure barely glimpsed is a source of suspense, and incomplete knowledge draws readers in, until they are constructing the figure in their own minds. Barnes does all of this with Marcus; the entire novel occurs after Marcus is dead, and readers catch only tantalizing glimpses of this powerful figure in old photos, journal excerpts, etc. However, in Charisma Barnes uses the mysterious figure to do much more than just create mystery. He uses the personal mystery at the heart of Alexander Marcus to explore spiritual and sociological mysteries: Where does the line fall between a capacity for violence and a tendency towards violence? Why does so much of Black America, or of poor America, or, eventually, just, of America, fall into shadow?
The other reason Barnes succeeds in telling an adventure story that is also a profoundly American story is his primary setting: Vancouver, Washington. There is a long tradition in speculative fiction of setting stories in small towns that are infused with wonder, in part because they are seen through the eyes of children or teenagers. Ray Bradbury did it, Stephen King, Robert Heinlein, and Dan Simmons all did it -- and now Steven Barnes has done it. His group of kids -- Patrick Emory, Destiny Valdez, Sherman Sevujian, Lee Wallace, and Crazy Frankie Darling -- could hold their own with the teen communities evoked by any of the masters mentioned above. Convincing as individuals and as a group, they show as much entrepreneurial initiative and investigative curiosity as any of them, and are, quietly but necessarily, multi-cultural, and dealing with the effects of racism and near poverty. The only time my belief in them flagged was when their sexuality was discussed. It felt like Barnes remembered or could observe what physical and intellectual prowess is like in a thirteen year old, but idealized and simplified the sexuality.
But unlike many of the groups of kids mentioned above, this group was not fated to be touched by weirdness. Nor do they simply stumble upon it. Instead, they are all members of a scientific project. Though perhaps "subjects" of the project would be a better way to put it, for they were selected to take part in an attempt to remold a generation of children growing up in poverty. A sketchily described team of (mad) scientists are attempting to counteract the poor nutrition, weak education, and worse nurturing that so many of our children suffer, but their plan to do so is hubris incarnate, near-eugenics. Neither the children nor their parents are informed that they are to take part in this massive (1500 kid) study. Instead, a national conspiracy is developed, putting specially equipped daycares in place, and establishing a secret regime to shape the children to reach their full potential. The scientists in charge brought this plan to Marcus. He not only approved the project, he also funded it.
Obviously, with a plan like this, there are going to be some problems. This was the other major point that challenged my suspension of disbelief. Wasn't anybody doing feasibility studies at the start of the project, or, more cynically, deniability studies? Marcus is supposed to have been running for high political office. Did nobody realize that such a tremendous end-run around existing legal, educational, and familial structures was going to have to come out eventually? To wave away these objections with references to Marcus's ego and his desire for immortality is to undercut his supposed stature as both politician and businessman. For the book to happen at all, he and his advisors had to be blind in these areas.
But that objection emerges late in the book. The plots that drive the book work incredibly well to create suspense. On the one hand, investigative reporter Renny Sand follows his heart, his wounded ego, and his atrophied reporter's instincts to investigate one side of the puzzle: why Alexander Marcus dropped out of the presidential race. Along the way Sand re-opens contact with the Emory family, whom he had met years earlier while covering a strange trial of abuse in a daycare. On the other hand, something is happening to the children in the study; someone is tracking them. We don't know why -- but we know it isn't good.
These stories intertwine with easily half a dozen others: the Emory family and erosion of the relationship between Vivian and Otis, Patrick's parents; a new love affair for Vivian; a first love for members of the group of teenagers; business ventures, by adults and children. Two of these other plot threads deserve special attention.
One is the tension between Kelly Kerrigan and Tristan D'Angelo. The two meet in a shooting competition in Diablo Arizona, where D'Angelo is mayor and Kelly lives with her husband Bobby Ray. Kelly is a striking figure, because she is both a senior citizen and a pure example of the warrior spirit that so hypnotizes Barnes. D'Angelo is her nemesis, a monster who is passing for civilized, and the conflict between them is electric throughout. Barnes makes it clear that every ritual combat carries within it the seeds of warrior training, and lifts the weekend competition to the level of budo, the way of the warrior.
The second plot is everything that grows out of Cappy Swenson's presence in Vancouver. Cappy is the more mundane threat that the teens, especially Patrick, must confront. A violent racist and a drugdealer, Cappy is a realistic small-town threat that Bradbury's teens never had to face. As when D'Angelo and Kitty square off, when Cappy and Otis clash, or Cappy and Patrick, something fundamental and exciting happens. The battle is often over what it means to be a man, especially a good man, and how far one can and should go to defend one's family. These are old questions, but for many men, and, indeed, for many woman, they are still core questions, and Barnes treats them with the honesty and respect they deserve.
Barnes also, miraculously, weaves all of these plots into a single climax that is literally explosive. The plot machinery creaks a bit a times. I had trouble believing that everybody would show up at the crucial place at the same time for the big showdown -- even as I eagerly flipped pages to see how things turned out.
Charisma isn't perfect. I've mentioned plot and structure points that gave me problems. There are a couple other problems that nagged me throughout the book. One was with the core idea of shaping these children; I had a lot of trouble with the psychic and physical synchronization that happened among them. It seemed too easy, by far. I also have to admit that when the specific details of Marcus's dark secret were revealed, I was disappointed. Barnes's choice fits with his overall concerns about the difficulty of managing violence, but only by moving into genre cliché.
But none of these take away from Charisma's core virtues. Charisma is a thriller that will have readers turning pages to see what happens next, and an intelligent novel that tackles important issues as it tells a great story.
Greg Beatty recently completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, where he wrote a dissertation on serial killer novels. He attended Clarion West 2000, and any rumors you've heard about his time there are, unfortunately, probably true. Greg's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our archive.
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