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Callahan's Con

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Callahan's Con
By Spider Robinson
Tor Books
Hardcover, July 2003
304 pages
ISBN 0-765-30270-5
MSRP: $23.95

reviewed by Robert Weirsema
in Quill & Quire, August 2003

For more than a quarter-century, the gang from Callahan's Place has been facing interplanetary peril, exploring strange new species (and drinks), and pushing the boundaries of physics and fiction alike. Spider Robinson's ongoing series of novels focuses on a ragtag, multispecied group of adventurers who met at the original Callahan's Place on Long Island. Callahan's was run by Mike Callahan, who, it turned out, was actually a time traveler from the far-distant future. Callahan is long gone from the series, and the gang has now settled in Key West, where their eccentricities pale in comparison to the main tourist drag.

Despite having saved the world on a number of occasions, the gang faces their most insidious peril: the Florida state Board of Education. Combine that with a less-than-bright aspiring Mafioso who wants to shake down the neighborhood, a calculated search for the fountain of youth, and some perilous time travel and you've got all the fixings for a classic Callahan adventure.

Robinson has created a compelling mythos that is both fantastically challenging and fundamentally human, even when its characters aren't (featured players in Callahan's Con include a bawdy and articulate elfin deer). The story hinges on issues of, and threats to, family and home, and it is through a strengthening of community that these are saved. The story also deals movingly with death and loss, both threatened and actual.

After nine Callahan books, Robinson's tone is familiar and comfortable; the humour is smoothly integrated and doesn't distract from the narrative. The characters are, necessarily, larger than life, but a few, including protagonist Jake Stonebender and his wife Zoey, are compellingly real. Readers of previous Callahan stories will return eagerly to The Place, sinking into their favourite chairs to catch up on what has happened in their absence. Like the best neighbourhood bars, though, strangers are welcome, and if you haven't checked out Callahan's, this might be a good time to give it a shot.

--Robert Wiersema is a writer and bookseller in Victoria.

Publisher's Weekly
June 16, 2003

Blend a madcap plot involving the legendary Fountain of Youth with a zany cast of barflies, garnish with a thin SF twist, and you've got the ingredients for the latest frothy concoction in Hugo-winner Robinson's (Callahan's Key) multivolume tall tale. Laid-back barkeep Jake Stonebender has been serving customers in The Place, a Key West saloon whose oddball patrons routinely tickle the space-time continuum and occasionally save the universe, for 10 years when he's touched for protection money by Little Tony Donuts, a humvee-sized mafioso who hopes to ingratiate himself with the Five Old Men who own everything in the world. Jake's scientifically precocious daughter, Erin, comes to the rescue with a scheme to sell Tony the fabled Fountain and "prove" its existence with increasingly youthful incarnations of herself conjured through time travel. Mishaps involving Erin's uptight truant officer, misuse of a timehopping gizmo, and - in the tale's soberest moment - terminal illness for one of the regulars, steer the story down fantastically unpredictable avenues. There's more mixer than hard stuff in this fruity farce, but the fare that keeps Robinson's fans coming back for another round - atrocious puns and song parodies, snickering SF in-jokes and the outrageous eccentricities of the series characters - is available in abundance. New and repeat visitors to Callahan's turf will find this a harmless diversion from more serious concerns.

Library Journal
July, 2003

When Jake Stonebender and his wife, Zoey, move to Florida and open up the Place, the latest incarnation of the unusual bar once known as Callahan's Place, he acquires a collection of strange friends, including a talking German shepherd, a merman, and a foul-mouthed parrot. An encounter with the Florida bureaucracy over the homeschooling of his hyperintelligent daughter, Erin, and the intrusion of the local Mafia result in a grand scheme to out wit both intrusions and rescue Jake's missing wife in the process. Robinson's latest entry in his Callahan series features more zaniness, good humor, and bad jokes. Fans will enjoy this fast-paced blend of sf adventure and tall tale.

July 13, 2003

Not everyone cares about the sand getting into everything. Jake Stonbender, co-proprietor of The Place, moved down to Key West in the last installment in Spider's "Callahan's Place" series. Most of the regulars are still there, and a few of the new folks, too.

The horrendous puns and song parodies are there, as well as another vast peril. Jake and Zoey are home-schooling their daughter, Erin, and a bureaucrat shows up. You may remember that the reason the crowd caravanned down from New York to Key West was partly due to a run-in with a local burrocrat of Ukrainian extraction. When Field Inspector Ludnyola Czrighnczl appears and wants to find out how Erin's education is coming along, Jake gets worried. There's no way for Ludnyola to know that Erin was already well enough educated to have saved the universe when she was 2, nor any way to make her believe it.

Being a "Callahan's" novel, there are of course more complications to come. One of them is in the shape of an extortionist/protection racketeer named Anthony "Tony Donuts" Donazzo. When the gang figures out why and how to con Little Nuts (his alternate moniker), things get more complicated yet.

Let the romping begin!

-- Jim Hopper

July 1, 2003

OK, it's really Erin Stonebender-Berkowitz and Willard the Professor's con. Callahan zapped out of his namesake series long ago and isn't answering his emergency phone. So when Zoey, Erin's mom, gets caught in hard vacuum, Jake, Erin's dad, convenes a neural bank to boost Erin's computer's capacity to calculate where in hard vacuum Zoey is. But that's getting ahead of the story, which begins when a board-of-ed inspector comes to assess whether 13-year-old Erin is receiving adequate home schooling. Now Erin was born smarter than the whole Callahan gang put together. She can teleport and time-travel - otherwise, why would she be the one to rescue Zoey? Anyway, the inspector's threat pales when a mastodon-size would-be Mafioso hits town (Key West) and starts shaking down the gang's watering hole, which Jake runs. Hence the con: gotta get ridda the gorilla. The wordplay flies fast and funny as always in a Callahan's romp, and the characters, regular and new, are pretty darn amusing. If only the long ending weren't so soppy.
- Ray Olson

Craig's Book Club
Book Recommendations
Spotlight on: CALLAHAN'S CON by Spider Robinson

Spider Robinson,
Callahan's Con (A Callahan Series Novel)

My experience with the Callahan series has been unconventional, at best. Introduced to them through a video game my brother-in-law had, I picked up the only Spider Robinson novel my local library had--Callahan's Legacy. Little did I know that this was not even close to the beginning of the series. Mike Callahan was the protagonist of five previous novels (or collections of short stories) and hardly appears in Callahan's Legacy at all. Mostly he is spoken of in reverent tones.

The hero of that book is Jake Stonebender (an apparent Spider Robinson doppelganger) who has opened a bar in Callahan's stead and named it after Mike's wife, Mary. Thus, Mary's Place--and not Callahan's Place--is the setting of Callahan's Legacy.

In any case, the puns and camaraderie inherent in the relationships of Jake, Long-Drink McGonnigle, Doc Webster, the Lucky Duck, and others sold me and I knew I was going to have to read another one by the time I got to page ten.

During further searches for Callahan books (but not wanting to actually buy a new copy of my own, I later found The Callahan Touch in a used bookstore (Another Story in Worcester, MA) while at the same time discovering that the proprietor was a fan. The Callahan Touch was a backwards step in the right direction, being the previous novel in the series (the first of Callahan series, mach two).

As I had read two novels of the latter series, I was loath to start back over from the beginning. So, when I was in the market for a Callahan novel, I purchased Callahan's Key and had thus read the existing novels in the Stonebender series. Not in the proper order, but I had read them all. Now all I had available to me was to go back and get The Callahan Chronicals (sic) and backtrack through the history of Spider Robinson's classic series.

Probably needless to say (but then why am I telling you), that didn't happen. This past week, I saw Callahan's Con on the New Book shelf in the library and that saved me the trouble of having to make the decision.

Callahan's Con takes place ten years after the events of Callahan's Key--the moving of the bar and all its patrons to southern Florida and the subsequent naming of "The Place." Superintelligent toddler Erin Stonebender-Berkowitz is now thirteen and becomes embroiled in a conflict with the state education board due to her not attending school. She is technically being "homeschooled" (a completely useless practice due to her supreme intelligence) but Jake and Zoey have not kept up with the proper paperwork. Jake wants to wait for Erin (he doesn't speak bureaucratese) but makes things worse when bureaucrat extraordinaire Ludnyola Czrjghnczl ("accent on the rjgh") ends up in the swimming pool with resident merman, Lexington.

In the meantime, a would-be-gangster comes into the bar offering "protection" for a price. Fortunately, someone recognizes him as the spitting image of his father, Tony Donuts. So the gang comes up with a plan to get him off their backs. A con involving a famous piece of Floridian history (or mythology, as the case may be). The ending involves the usual impossiblities such as time-travel and various seemingly unconquerable conflicts which are, of course, solved in the nick of time by various deus ex machinae. But this is all part of the fun.

Spider Robinson is to science-fiction what Terry Pratchett is to fantasy. We just let him run with the ideas and don't ask questions. Anyone who has read previous Callahan novels will recognize the seemingly random plot progression. But it's all just a medium for the puns (the groaner the better) and love and laughter. He's not quite the heir to Douglas Adams (who possibly could be?) but you can't fault him for trying.

I don't read the Callahan novels for the plots, anyway. I read them for the characters and their interactions with each other. Although you'd better stay alert reading Callahan's Con as there are a lot of those characters to keep up with. All the ones from previous books are at least mentioned and more are constantly being added to the place--wherever it is located geographically or temporally--where "shared pain is lessened, shared joy increased."

Callahan's Con
Spider Robinson
Tor, 2003 (2003) Hardcover

Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I have read many books by Spider Robinson over the years but only early episodes in the Callahan series. Callahan's Con is a smooth, satisfying read, in a series that has matured to become as mellow as one of the old malts served behind Jake Stonebender's bar.

Robinson has been compared to greats in science fiction, Harlan Ellison and Robert Heinlein in particular. Though he shares with both of them a strong dislike for the bureaucratic process, he is much kinder than Ellison (just imagine what the author of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream would have done to Robinson's Ms. Czrjghnczl), and (despite the same kind of opinionated, eccentric characters, and the fact that Pixel the Cat Who Walks Through Walls frequents Callahan's saloon) writes a very different kind of story from Heinlein. Spider Robinson has his own voice and it's a strong one.

It seems that, after losing a run-in with a bureaucrat up north, Jake Stonebender (Callahan and family have departed the scene for alien pastures) has relocated the bar to Key West, followed by its loyal patrons. Locals, like Lex the Merman, who occupies a pool in the middle of the bar, have jumped in too. Soon Jake has troubles, which quickly multiply. Field Inspector Czrjghnczl shows up to check on the homeschooling of supergenius daughter Erin, who flits around in time and space and frequently arrives sans attire. Then the monstrous Tony Donuts Jr.'s desire to impress the Mafia (via a successful protection racket) leads to further calamities.

The Callahan crowd decides to sting the Mafioso and set up an elaborate 'Fountain of Youth' con, involving Erin up close and personal. Of course, it goes awry and the resulting sequence of events culminates in the need for a dramatic rescue of Jake's wife Zoey, complicated by the fact that they don't know where or when she is. It's all fun and frothy, but somewhere in there a serious note is injected when it's learned that one of the gang is dying. This results in a reassessment of priorities, along with the usual dose of the author's awful puns. Overall, Callahan's Con is good SF and great fun.

Callahan's Con

A home-schooling bureaucrat and an Italian racketeer may finally spell the end for the time-traveling Callahans

Callahan's Con
By Spider Robinson
Tor Books
Hardcover, July 2003
304 pages
ISBN 0-765-30270-5
MSRP: $23.95

Review by Matthew Peckham

What blows up, must come down, or back-in Key West, that is, which is where Callahan's Con grabs the torch from the last tale and plunges readers forward a decade. The bar like a Greek chorus and its menagerie of happy-go-lucky, ever-trippy gentle hedonists are back with new faces, puns and shaggy-dog stories, partying like it's the end of the world (which it often nearly is in the Callahan tales).

At the end of Callahan's Key, barkeep Jake Stonebender and his motley crew had fled Long Island for Key West, set up a new watering hole and saved the universe from total annihilation. Ten years later, Jake Stonebender and the Callahan regulars are still bumping and imbibing the nights away at "The Place," until their worst nightmare shows up: a bureaucrat. Perfectly prim and armored in a designer suit, she proceeds to inform Jake that he's in Big Trouble because both he and his wife, Zoey, have violated Florida's home-schooling laws by failing to periodically submit their child to state competency tests. The 13-year-old daughter, Erin, is a teleporting, time-traveling supergenius, and revealing any of this would invite the scrutiny of the government, which would consequently land Jake's rather extraordinary gang in observation tanks or on autopsy tables.

Adding insult to imbroglio, an Italian racketeer nicknamed "Tony Donuts," with the build (and manners) of King Kong, shows up, determined to put the muscle on the Callahan bunch for his own sinister purposes. With the bureaucrat lurking, Jake consults a retired mafioso bigwig and comes to the conclusion that the only way out of the mess without getting messy himself is to pull the ultimate con. Thus, the bulk of the story concerns the Callahan group's labyrinthine escapades, musings, puns, freak shows, bonding sessions and attempts (once more) to prevent the universe from going poof.

A whimsical yarn with a big heart

What makes Callahan's Con one of the better Callahan novels is its focus on plot, however farcical the details, fantastic coincidences and unlikely resolutions. Robinson is the master of deadpan satire, able to perform the literary equivalent of making milk come out of his nose without so much as cracking a grin; Barry Gifford, Piers Anthony, Douglas Adams, Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard rolled into one goofy ball. Unfortunately, that superhuman ability to pull one gag after another on one's audience only works well hung from the latticework of a gripping story. Critics faulted the last book in the series for its tendency to ramble, at one point taking over a dozen chapters just to complete a road trip.

Fortunately, a straightforward plot is clearly in evidence here. Don't expect the clockwork complexity of Jonathan Nolan's Memento Mori or Robert Heinlein's "All You Zombies-", but perhaps more than any Callahan tale yet, this one's a page-turner. After we get the helpful first chapter recapitulation out of the way, the story takes off, even yielding some tense action scenes involving bicycles, mopeds and porno dives. All this is carefully interspersed with character exploration scenes, more puns than you can shake a stick at, and Jake's personal soliloquies on life, the universe and his glowing sex life. There are a few logic quirks, the selective avoidance of scientific explanations for certain events, and a final zero-sum game that rivals the Macintosh computer virus fiasco at the end of Independence Day for sheer inanity, but these slide off easily in the wake of the story's successes.

There's also a dark stripe running through the story's middle this time, culminating in a tragic event that Robinson treats with tenderness, professional melancholy and even a bit of lopsided humor. Only someone like Robinson could pull it off here, and it adds a pleasant layer of unsentimental warmth that is too often missing from much else written in the genre.

The Callahan tales are loosely connected, but Robinson writes them independently and with enough backstory to let each one stand as an individual, complete work. The series' namesake, for instance-Mike Callahan, time-traveling immortal-doesn't even make a cameo here. And that's just fine, because while there's undoubtedly more to come from the jocose mind of Mr. Robinson, the Jake Stonebender crew is just as engaging, and clearly here to stay. Fans or newcomers alike should consider this one for their summer reading lists.

You want to go where everybody knows your name, and that's the feeling you get when you pick up a Callahan book. - Matt

Callahan's Con
Spider Robinson

In 1973, Spider Robinson moved to Nova Scotia, where he met and married Jeanne Robinson, a choreographer/dancer, and founder of Halifax's first modern dance company, Nova Dance Theatre. Both Robinsons collaborated on the multiple award-winning Stardance. The Robinsons now live in Vancouver, British Columbia.

A review by Alma A. Hromic

I first met Spider Robinson (disguised as Jake Stonebender) in a glorious romp of a tale involving a gloriously and unapologetically plastered punaholic in the shape of an Irish sprite called a cluricaune. The being in question was the focus of a series of increasingly more wild and improbably pun-improvisations set to the tune of "That's Amore." After I had finished wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes, I determined to further investigate this author -- and was thus pulled into the wacky world of Mike Callahan, Jake Stonebender, and their merry men.

I've been laughing with Spider Robinson ever since. I frankly could not believe that anyone could keep up that level of punnery for an entire book -- but he did, for several, and became one of the people whose new books I will buy, no questions asked, as soon as they hit the stores.

Things began to change, just a little, with the novel preceding this latest one. In Callahan's Key, Spider Robinson, no longer content to merely make me laugh, turned around and made me cry. It was astonishing how easy it seemed to be for him to achieve, but on the whole I probably should not have been surprised -- after all, this was the latest opus from one who had encapsulated one of the greatest emotional truths of the human nature, that shared pain is halved and shared joy is doubled. In a way it was made easier for him in the sense that he was writing on a subject which has always fired up my own spirit -- his description of watching a shuttle launch made me want to laugh, cry, stand up and cheer, all at once. But that was then; this is now, and his latest one, Callahan's Con, not only makes me laugh and makes me cry -- it makes me mourn for the passing of a character as though that character were a real person and a friend. At the same time, the book encapsulates another great truth -- that the greatest tragedies can hold within themselves moment of the purest, most joyous laughter possible. The laughter that leads to tears that are a release from that tragedy.

Spider Robinson is still making me giggle out loud. But this book is rather more like pushing aside the cream floating at the top of a glass of Irish coffee, and discovering that underneath it is black, and often bitter. And that these facts do not detract one whit from the fact that taken as a whole an Irish coffee, like life, is something to be savoured.

Seeing as Mike Callahan isn't really answering his emergency phone these days when Jake tries to call him, the title of Robinson's latest is something of a con in itself, since Callahan appears in it only as a memory -- but this is a quibble. The book itself has stayed with me in the hours and days since I've finished reading Callahan's Con. I don't exactly know why. I do know it's the kind of thing that latches onto your heart. In earlier Callahan stories, Spider Robinson was plainly kicking up and having fun -- write a tale with protagonists that include a bunch of time travelers, an assortment of extraterrestrials, an out-of-this-world whorehouse, a clutch of happily tipsy and stridently paronomasiac bullet-proof barflies, a brace of Ukrainian bureaucrats and Nikola Tesla, and you can't help going off at the deep end. The only story that will contain all these things just has to be a wild ride. But with Callahan's Key and more especially with Callahan's Con, Spider Robinson -- while he hasn't for a moment stopped having fun -- is doing something far more serious. He's building a legacy. He's using the funhouse bricks that were the earlier zany Callahan novels in raising an edifice that will endure for a great deal longer than that.

If I had a fireplace, a glass, and a convenient bottle of Bushmill's, I'd raise a toast and smash the glass in the time-honoured Callahan's Place way. I'll have to be content with simply saying that I will continue to watch out for and enjoy every new book that Spider Robinson puts out there.

Copyright © 2003 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves". When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Following her successful two-volume fantasy series, Changer of Days, her latest novel, Jin-shei, is due out from Harper San Francisco in the spring of 2004.

Callahan's Con
By Spider Robinson; Read by Barrett Whitener
8 CDs - Approx. 10 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 0786183470
Themes: / Science Fiction / Humor / Crime / Time Travel / Immortality / Telepathy / Florida /

Jake Stonebender, our favorite intergalactic barkeep, rivets us to our stools with yet another wild and wooly yarn about the goings on of his Key West cantina. This time though, it isn't the end of the world that is the trouble. Instead, it's a mountainous mole-hill of a thug named Tony Donuts Jr. who wants to make his bones by fleecing Jake and his neighboring businesses for "protection money". Jake could solve this problem with straight-on firepower, but that'd only bring down more government attention on him and his hippie clientele. And more heat is what he doesn't need - because wouldn't you know it - a dedicated bureaucrat from the Florida family services department has been sniffing around to find out why Jake's only daughter has not been to school since she was born some thirteen years ago! So Jake and his extended family set about concocting a sting so devious it will make Florida Swampland real estate look good. The grift involves, among other things, time-travel, the Russian Mob, and the Fountain of Youth!

Full of brain-smearing puns and gawdawful song parodies Callahan's Con is guaranteed to entertain anyone who enjoys Robinson's Hugo award winning fiction. Myself, I come for the jokes and stay for references. In this case a nice homage to literature's most unlucky master criminal: John Dortmunder. Callahan's Con is proof that not only can Robinson like to write in the style of Heinlein - as he did in the previous installment, Callahan's Key, - but also that he can write in the style of Mystery Writers Of America Grandmaster Donald E. Westlake! Interestingly this means that that Jake's first person perspective is stretched-out to include multiple viewpoints - as is the Westlake's Dortmunder novels. I'm not sure how Robinson did it, but he managed to convey other character's perspectives in a way I can only describe as fictionalizing the fiction. I should also note that in a break with tradition Robinson hasn't merely added to the seeming ever growing entourage surrounding Jake - for a major of character in the series dies. Though this could be troubling it is handled with grace and a few tears.

Reader Barrett Whitener, in this third Blackstone Audio Callahan audiobook does his familiar and fun vocal gymnastics routine - spouting off one liners in a dozen comic voices. Whitener, an Audie Award winner, is well matched with comic material - it really and truly is his forte. Blackstone Audio has been known to use a mix of art from the hardcover or paperback and their own original cover art. Their own art has been steadily improving and I'm pleased to say this is the nicest original cover so far!

posted by Jesse Willis