One of the more common criticisms of Gene Wolfe's work that I have come across when browsing certain spec fic forums is that as talented of a writer that he is, that too often his characters are too distant from their experiences. While I suppose having a far future torturer with an eidetic memory or a Roman mercenary with a form of amnesia might make for some difficulty in relating to a Severian or a Latro, I just cannot see how after a read of Wolfe's Free Live Free that people could claim that Wolfe is incapable of writing accessible and sympathetic characters. While this short piece will not be as long as the previous ones (due in equal parts to the nature of the narrative and to time constraints), I would offer up this novel as an example of Wolfe's versatility as a writer.
Free Live Free is set in Chicago, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s (the novel was published in 1984 as a limited-edition before its 1985 mass release). There is an old dilapidated house owned by one Benjamin Free (yes, the last name is indicative of something that transpires in this novel) that is due to be demolished under eminent domain, so a freeway can be built. Some days before the scheduled seizure, there is an advertisement that appears in the local paper offering free rent in exchange for the renter(s) finding a particular item within the house that needs to be returned to Free. This ad draws four salt-of-the-earth types: the out-of-work unlicensed private eye Jim Stubb; the occultist Madame Serpentina, who has a tendency to speak in a mish-mash of languages when she wants to impress people; the rather chubby but perceptive prostitute/sexual therapist Candy Garth; and the ever-broke salesman Ozzie Barnes.
While this story of hunting for a mysterious object might sound as though it would be wandering too close to Dan Brown territory, Wolfe's novel is much more about the characters. Wolfe has taken the time to build up each of the characters and as the story progresses, their characters deepen while remaining true to their inner cores. Here is one example of this, near the beginning of the novel, as Ozzie Barnes is talking with Benjamin Free:
Free looked over his shoulder. "Interestin' you should say that. Because, Mr. Barnes, I been just now wonderin' about yours. The black part in a man's eye usually gets big in the dark, just like a cat's. When I lit this here candle, I noticed only one of yours acted so. Your one there looks about the way it always did, I believe."Each of the characters receives this sort of introduction early on, before the plot dynamics kick into high gear and the foursome find themselves wandering around Chicago, looking for clues as to this mysterious object that Free alluded to and which must be turned over to him, if he can be found again. While there are certainly elements of the mystery novel here, it is how these four characters interact with each other and their city that makes for an enjoyable story. While not overtly SF until the last pages, when the mysterious object is revealed and its use explained, it certainly is a work that might serve as an easier introduction to Wolfe's writing.
"It's glass," Barnes admitted. "You don't think it looks too unnatural, Mr. Free?"
"Never noticed it till now."
"I'm glad of that. Sometimes I think I see people looking at it when I'm making a call. Appearance is very important in sales, and someday, when money's easier, I'll buy a better one. The best are made in Germany, but they cost a bundle."
"It looks fine," the old man told him. "It's the most natural thing about you."
"It would be better if the others, especially Madame Serpentina - "
"You don't have to worry about me. I'll be gone anyways, just like I told you. When I got you people in here, I kind of hoped they'd leave the old place stand because folks was still livin' here. It ain't goin' to work, though, and I know it. I look at my walls, and I can see that big, black ball comin' through 'em."
"I'll do what I can, Mr. Free," Barnes said. "I know the others will too."
"I believe that, Mr. Barnes."
"I know that none of you - except for Madame Serpentina - think a hell of a lot of me. Just a bunch of talk, a hand-pumper and a back-slapper. But I don't walk away from my friends, Mr. Free. Not unless I'm forced to."
Free nodded. "You're a bigger man on the inside than on the outside, Mr. Barnes. I knew it when I seen you hadn't got nothing for yourself last night 'fore you brought our grub to us. There's a few like you." (pp. 41-42).