The writer Gene Wolfe possesses many gifts; he bears an almost equal number of maddening, irritating flaws. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his 1984 experimental mystery novel Free Live Free. To call Free a mystery ignores its massively genre-breaking ambitions, even if it doesn’t wholly miss the point of the book.

But why am I writing about a book published more than twenty years ago by a mustachioed nerd whose claims to fame include fighting in Korea and authoring a five-book series about a time-traveling male torturer who is also a depraved noblewoman and a thinly-veiled metaphor for Jesus? Gene Wolfe, for those readers who have not already guessed, languishes in the ghetto of genre fiction, more specifically science fiction. The Book of the New Sun, his magnum opus, has achieved relative fame in the SF slums, and most of his work has received enthusiastic (sometimes embarrassingly effusive) reviews from the mainstream press. I discovered Wolfe several years ago after tearing through Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, an interconnected series of novels and short stories that starts out as unutterably tedious sword-and-sorcery dreck and then suddenly turns into one of the most playful, hilarious and riveting adventure novels ever written – Vance trots out unusual words and incomparably bizarre situations as regularly as Joyce Carol Oates publishes a new novel. Wolfe remains much more sober than Vance, but Wikipedia places them both on the same list of vaguely post-apocalyptic fiction; this is how I got into Wolfe. Vance, though adorable and entertaining, doesn’t have much range. But Wolfe, oh Wolfe, he reaches. He almost invariably fails, but his failures are so spectacular and such an odd and fussy spark animates them that they never disappoint me in the least.

Free Live Free proudly joins Wolfe’s other escapes from the prison of sci-fi, and probably fails more spectacularly than any of his other works. It begins close to the ground, especially for a science fiction author, with a plot that could have come from Steinbeck – Ben Free, an old man in a cold city (probably Chicago) takes in even though his house has been condemned. He lets his lodgers live there for free (hence the title) under the mistaken opinion that the city will not destroy an occupied house. The first third of the book introduces the house itself and the characters, each of whom steps directly from Wolfe’s unfortunately shopworn warehouse of archetypes.

We have Candy, a fat whore who controls her sexual desires rather better than her desire for food and booze (Wolfe is a bit of a misogynist, in the same way that Chicago is a bit cold in February). Wolfe attends constantly to her gross body, describing her fat stomach slopping this way and that, her pathetic clothes, and her equally sad desires – she often sleeps with men for food as much as for money. Wolfe plays this, mostly, for laughs; I’m still undecided on whether we’re supposed to sympathize with Candy. Next is Ozzie Barnes, a one-eyed novelty salesman in the Death of a Salesman mode of not-so-quiet desperation. He compares himself, bafflingly and increasingly frequently towards the end of the novel, to Popeye. He has divorced his wife and has a son; he answers personal ads in the newspaper (by mail! It’s set in the 1980s); and in Free’s house he spies on his neighbor through a hole in the wall. His neighbor, Madame Serpentina (no wait, keep reading!) is an acid-tongued Gypsy witch who seems to show real supernatural powers and who is the first one to pick up on the fact that Free may not be who he seems.

The last lodger is Stubb, a tiny private detective (not yet licensed) who indulges in Wolfe’s favorite activity – talking through elaborate explanations for why and how people do various simple and complicated things. If you want an author who will let you know with iron certainty what hotel room doors someone passed by on their way to the elevator, then Gene Wolfe is your man, and little Stubb is Wolfe’s avatar in this book.

All of this is basically baffling – one of Wolfe’s signature moves as a writer is to delay context and explanation so that even the most picayune details of his work gain a numinous, weird incomprehensibility. This is hard to represent with an excerpt, and is neither bad writing nor unpleasant reading, but it is singular to Wolfe and almost always interesting. So for the first hundred pages or so these more or less repulsive characters wander around Free’s house exchanging cryptic conversations and beating off in their rooms. Eventually, with much hysteria and little ceremony, the city comes and demolishes most of the house. Whoops! Free disappears; the characters become convinced that Free was hiding something of immense value and begin, each in his or her own way, to hunt for him. Madame Serpentina believes Free to be an epopt of some profound mystery who has put aside a talisman which will grant limitless power; prosaic Stubbs thinks Free must have tucked a small Rembrandt behind a baseboard. The rest of the novel reads like a b-side from Discipline and Punish – the cast proceeds through a hotel and a mental hospital, then finally winds up at a military base for an ending so thoroughly and completely fucked in the head that I would never dare to spoil it here.

The payoff is big and totally weird, but the journey there is alternately classic and almost incomprehensibly irritating. Wolfe freely drops witty little bombs like “A large, smooth elevator decorated like the very best type of Victorian brothel carried them to the seventh floor.” Sometimes he deftly shows-doesn’t-tell magnificent details of his characters – he has an occultist who would not shut up about Secret Masters and elementals and mysteries for about twenty pages immediately start thinking about how much he loves his old Packard as soon as his audience is gone. But Wolfe also over-indulges his writer’s tics in this novel – he presents a querulous old woman who routinely messes up names and clichés “cooco” for cocoa and “wait a shack” for “wait a sec.” Dickens or Shakespeare would have handled her well; Wolfe makes the reader wonder why the other characters do not murder her (if this was his intention he succeeded too thoroughly). She won’t stop trotting out these malapropisms, and most of the other characters just won’t stop talking (or asking one another for cigarettes – remember, 80s!). Much of the book is dialogue, and much of it is the characters turning over and over their bizarre theories about Free. Wolfe writes action really well – a short brawl in a hotel in the third act is as exciting as a boxing match – but he relies on dialogue to move the plot, and it move it somewhat slowly and inefficiently.

Readers, take these criticisms as a warning, not a plea not to find the book and read it. Despite its grotesqueries Free Live Free is absorbing and deeply memorable. The outré final act is certainly worth the price of admission, as is the fact that the book simply is not like anything else published recently. Give it a shot, and try some other Wolfe while you’re at it.