"I'm no sooner born than at the end of my rope. I pass out awhile and when I come to, a few things have been switched around on me and it's a while before I catch on. It's 1917, and the clock is ticking."
~Banning Jainlight, Tours of the Black Clock
An intricate and fascinating novel, Tours of the Black Clock was written by Steve Erikson and was published in 1989. Erikson proves a unique writer who demonstrates a love of magic realism and quirky plots in the majority of his novels. I've read almost all of the them and this one is by far the best.
At the start of the story we meet Marc, the son of a prostitute, and he works on a ferry boat bringing tourists to and from the small island he was born on. He witnesses a strange death of a man in front of his mother and decides never to return to the island, remaining on the ferry boat permanantly. Fifteen years go by, until one day he notices a girl in a blue dress on his ferry boat who travels to the island. She doesn't return, so he goes off the boat to look for her. He doesn't find the startling girl but he sees his mother again, and somehow this meeting brings up the ghost of a man named Banning Jainlight, who's narrative takes over here for the rest of the novel.
The time period changes to the early 20th century. Jainlight is born and he grows up feeling like he can see time (or something to this effect). Jainlight kills one of his brothers and runs off to the city where he eventually begins writing pornagraphic stories for pay. He grows popular and one day he is asked to write his stories for one reclusive client only. For a while he settles down with a wife and has kids.
Jainlight's tales involve a fantasy woman of his, and the client sees the woman as someone he was once in love with.
Now this German client is inferred to be Adolf Hitler himself. Somehow, through a confusing web of time travel and the powerful emotions felt by the client when he reads Jainlight's stories, history alters and the outcome of World War II changes. Germany ends up defeating England.
After the war, Jainlight is sent to prison, where it turns out an aging Hitler is imprisoned as well. Jainlight manages to make an escape with Hitler and they go to America in search for the fantasy woman they both dream of. Hitler dies and then Jainlight travels to the afore-mentioned island where he lives with Marc's mother for the rest of his years. He is tortured by his past and wishes to be forgiven.
So the man who died in the beginning of the story is him, after all of this. Towards the end, the tale returns (mainly) back to the present time. Jainlight has died, having never truly asking for forgiveness for his role in Hitler's life and everything else he was involved with. The town custom is to hang the dead in a tree until someone says their name. When this is finally done for Banning, history alters again and the actual ending of WWII comes back. (I think) Timelines in this book are never clear.
After this Marc ends up chasing the ephemeral girl in the blue dress all over the world and through time.
It may seem odd that a book could be enjoyed so when certain aspects of time and plot are rather confusing, but it's still a fantastic read. Along with the unusual storyline is the way Erikson tells his tale. His strength is weaving this story quite romantically, and yet not over doing it.
I definitely recommend this book. For those who enjoy Erikson's style, other books by him I would suggest reading are Zeroville, The Sea Came in at Midnight, Amnesiascope and Our Ecstatic Days.