Ambientby Jack Womack
“Fascinating and well written . . . wonderfully inventive.” –The New York Times Book Review
Combining the nightmarish vision of J. G. Ballard and the linguistic brilliance of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Ambient is Jack Womack’s stunning first novel.
Set in a decaying and violent twenty-first-century New York, Ambient tells the story of O’malley, a very special bodyguard for an outrageously ruthless CEO named Dryden, and of his attempts to woo Dryden’s personal femme fatale, Avalon. But what begins as a simple case of unrequited love quickly turns into a complicated deathtrap involving corporate intrigue, murderous family rivalries, and perverse subcultures.
A stylish and brilliantly inventive novel, Ambient creates a world that is powerful, convincing, and prophetically real.
“Fascinating and well written . . . wonderfully inventive.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Bleakly comic . . . A cynical tour de force through the meanest of streets. Ambient is less prophecy than documentary, demonstrating how the best science fiction is about as future-oriented as today’s Daily News.” –The Village Voice
“Womack . . . performs feats of brilliance on many levels . . . He succeeds in balancing blistering social commentary with shrewd literary experimentation . . . . Flecked with black humor, this is speculative fiction at its eerie best.” –Entertainment Weekly
“Later we speak, O’malley,” Mister Dryden confided to me, climbing into the car that morning; I sat shotgun next to Jimmy, the driver. “I’ve a plan.”
Jimmy loved Fifth Avenue, the safest route downtown. We rode a Castrolite, twenty-three long, eight across, quite maneuverable when the squeeze drew. We were secure, to a degree; we were used to it. Dad always said that so long as you had no choice, you could get used to anything that didn’t kill you. He was dead.
“Move,” said Mister Dryden.
The car’s computer–a number six–awared Jimmy of internal troubles, gently chiding him if bad tidings sounded. Armor lined the car frame. A wire skirt ran beneath; no mollies could be rolled under by any seeking sport. The electroshield buzzed at button’s press, frying miscreants wishing to lodge grievances. If warranted, less passive options effected. When all failed, my hands guarded; there were never safer hands than mine.
“Where?” asked Jimmy.
Mister Dryden, like his father, loved E. ‘don’t Be Cruel” played on the lasereo as we rolled.
He had everything he needed back there: a liquor cabinet, a TVC, a drug compartment topfull with reckers, a Home Army shortwave, two working phones, an IBM XL9000, a Xerox, and a bidet. The bidet was for Avalon; Avalon was for Mister Dryden.
“Bookstore me,” he said.
Avalon loved little; she sat beside Mister Dryden. The TVC on her side was tuned, as always, to Vidiac. I couldn’t see the screen; could only hear (by listening with care, for Mister Dryden’s music played always at top) the sound of tech, chill and remote. Modern music, all tonalities and modulations and flurps and burps and wheeps, never attracted me, and the sharp abandon of Ambient groups–whose music never appeared on Vidiac– overfrenzies my skull. I prefer the music of the dead longaway.
“Rapido,” he added.
I loved Avalon; I watched her dress. Her own hair was close-cut, inch-deep topside; she pulled on a curly blond shoulder-length wig. She wore only her wig, that minute; her dishabille was never fully appealing until she slipped in her choppers. Proxies–such as Avalon–were required by law to have their teeth extracted by the Health Service so that they couldn’t relieve frustration in an untoward manner. She’d latched Mister Dryden after serving as a lala for the usual period; she was twenty and had been with us for two years. I’d been his chief guard and unofficial business confidant for twelve; she was so happy with her job as I was with mine.
“Ta raas,” sighed Jimmy.
Avalon smiled at me, spreading her legs as if to admit the sun. To see her face reshone morning’s light, however low dropped the sky’s gray wrap. That morning was overcast; most were.
“How’s by you, O’malley?” she asked.
“By the by,” I replied.
We stopped at the Eighty-sixth Street light. More than I burned; five raw youth had kindled a homebody near the park wall and watched him toast nut-brown. Home Army boys stood on constant guard around the park, and held secure the concrete veldt surrounding the Met; chest-high rolls of razorwire further strengthened those perimeters. Even so, early that morning, innumerable boozhies queued at the Met’s entrance, standing snakelined in tankmuzzle’s shadow, waiting to be refused admittance into a major exhibition of Aboriginal art, about which they could later quack as if they’d truly gawked.
Park boys and Army boys–none older than sixteen–stared at our car. Avalon leaned forward, pressing her breasts against the window. She knew that they couldn’t see her through the smoked glass, but she didn’t mind–nor did Mister Dryden, who ignored her.
“Jah!” shouted Jimmy, swerving. A cab–TAILGATE AND DIE scratched into the trunk lid–pulled out, bumping us. The hack screamed at Jimmy and then proceeded up our lane. Using the plow masking our own car’s face, Jimmy speeded up, ramming the cab, pushing it onto the curb before we reached Seventy-ninth. The hack’s door opened and he fell into the gutter. Jimmy pressed one of the defense buttons, steaming him raw as we passed. He flopped like a fresh-caught fish.
“Quashie won’t rax us now,” laughed Jimmy, shaking the dreads from his face.
“I shouldn’t think so,” I said. Urchins hurtled over the park wall and tenderized the cabbie. One smashed the windows of the cab; unfulfilled, he smashed the windows of other passing vehicles. The Army boys laughed; inspired, ever eager for entertainment, they fired into buses inching past. Passengers sprang high, dropping from the sides.
Avalon donned her shopping ensemble: a black leather maillot, cut high over the hips, with open lacing from neck’s nape, between her legs, and back to her chin. The ties knotted over her crotch; above the knot was a tattoo of tiny male artillery, with a bloody knife in lieu of the peacemaker. She zipped her thigh-high black boots; tipped the bill of her Death’s-Head SS officer’s cap below one eye.
“How do I look?” she asked Mister Dryden, who chose Avalon’s public wear; his sense of couture had grown rather stylized.
“Yummy,” he mumbled, accessing his mail, studying the monitor. He one-handed the keys; with the other hand he scratched away, digging and probing and pulling at his skin, trying to catch the creepies that he perceived to be crawling beneath.
“That’s all?” she asked; it was. She looked at me and rolled her eyes. She was a dream printed and punched; the woman you brought home to mother, if mother was home. Mine was dead. To be so evernear while everfar set my feelings on hair trigger; were I a moth I would have freely sizzled in her light.
Two copters buzzed over Midtown, seven hundred feet up, whipping between the buildings. Young pilots in the Home Army did reckers and then took their machines aloft, playing tag among the towers. Dozens were shot down every year, to lessen the damage.
The entrance to the Midtown Control Zone was at Fifty-ninth. There were signs of a recent blast at the pedway: the barricade wall bedizened with red; a greater disarray than might be explained by overuse. On the wall was stencilled the Army’s most enforceable antiterror edict:
Speak English Or Dont Speak.
You could wander through any Manhattan zone and not hear English spoken for weeks.
Having 1A plates, we zazzed down our lane while regular-laned trucks, taxis, and buses were stopped, searched, and turned away; it was after rush and traffic was tied for only forty blocks. Flags hung from the facade of Midtown Army Executive HQ, the old Plaza Hotel, long daubed over in dull Army drab. Machine guns and launchers were mounted on the roof, trained on the park. A fountain outside shot scarlet-dyed water into the air, symbolizing the overseas’ battlefields’ unceasing torrents. Children stood on line outside the Recirculation Center at Fifty-eighth, carted in by the vanload so that they could volunteer their own flow; the Army preferred the blood of the fresh and unspoiled. Army boys kept the detainees amused, shooting pigeons off roofs; those wishing other fare watched Vidiac, broadcast over the street monitors. At Schwartz, across the street, owner’s children, guided by tutors and nannies, glutted themselves on their own market’s bounty. We passed Bergdorf Tower at Fifty-seventh, Gucci’s World at Fifty-third, Cartico at Fifty-second, Saint Paddy’s Condoplex at Fiftieth, Saks-Mart at Forty-ninth.
“Any parking places?” I asked. Limos blackwalled the curbs.
“Soon enough, man,” said Jimmy. ‘soon enough.”
A postal van was parked before the bookstore; even the driver appeared covered in graffiti. In Control Zones, mail deliveries were made once a day; in other zones the mail arrived weekly, if at all. As we pulled behind the truck, the driver lurched it away before we might make merry. There were, as ever, few cars in the zone proper; only limos, some taxis, delivery trucks allowed through on their daily runs. Buses were forbidden to enter Control Zones, for they could too handily truck in the ill-mannered. The wind whistled round the buildings as if through a graveyard. I opened my door slowly, getting out; I’d injured my shoulder earlier in the week. A blue and white, sirens wailing, sped by.
“Showtime,” said Jimmy.
They were slow; further down Fifth a storefront sneezed fire.
“Nipponbank again,” said Mister Dryden, looking up, shaking his head. ‘stay, Jimmy.”
There were always blasts in Midtown. Responsibility was divvied by the Dreds, or by Mariel; by the Nation of Aztlan, the Black Flag Order, Crimson and Clover, Nouveaux Maroon, Black Wicca Women, the Sons of the Pioneers, or by any of the other lesser, more transitory groups, all toiling daily at their works of disconcertion. Those commanding precautioned. Any vehicle parked in a Control Zone had to have one person near at all times, or it would be blasted. Vehicle searches proved effective; singles entering the pedways were strip-searched, as at museums (for that the Army developed cunning equipment–an Army boy once showed me his inspection glove, like a falconers’, with a roof-shingle texture). Some groups levied inside support; some kamikazied. One of the more inventive groups developed an explosive that could be safely swallowed; only later would tum acids grant one last heartburn. X-rays triggered the blast and were of little help. All at play had their ways and reasons.
Army trucks raced down the avenue. “Look at “em dash,” laughed Jimmy, his gold teeth gleaming as if he’d had them buffed. “Won’t find “em now with a sieve.”
Jimmy claimed his full name to be Man Jimmy Too Bad; he was a Dred until Mister Dryden retained him as his chauffeur, using traditional tactics to gain his access, luring new sharks with warmer blood. Jimmy still professed belief in Ras Tafari, keeping a picture of Selassie over the dash and the Holy Piby in his pocket. A drawer beneath the steering column held his chillum-pipe and his wisdomweed. He was an excellent driver; we’d never had an accident he hadn’t planned.
Mister Dryden seemed especially underweathered that morning, and mayhap my concern showed overmuch; he looked sharply at me, as if I’d disturbed his slumber, and I quickly drained my face of care. His hand shook as he fumbled to close the car door. I met Mister Dryden the first time I left New York; after I was graduated from the Bronx High School of Management, a friend of my father’s got me a job as a guard at Yale. Mister Dryden hired me while he was a sophomore, and I’d worked for him since, big with joy and gratitude. By working so directly for an owner–more particularly, for Dryco–I was excused from Army service. It seemed for so long that my life was made for what I did, and it was certainly preserved. Half my grad class became business midmen and half joined the Army. As of that morning, I was probably the only survivor.
There was no one for whom I’d have rather worked than Mister Dryden; then the change came clear, dimming his eyes, drawing the mindshades down.
“We’ll shortterm,” he said. He strode toward the store as he always had–briskfooted, as if toward something only he cared to see. But now he moved–when he moved–by snap of nerve’s impulse and the rush of vituperation. The bookstore’s building was one hundred years old. The store had a vaulted interior, a glass front, wrought-iron balconies, and spiral staircases; a grand marble stairway in the rear and polished brass lamps. To enter the store led even the average owner to imagine that he, too, could read. Avalon preceded me, the muscles in her legs and hips drawing tight, slackening and regrouping as she walked. The Dryco logo, a smirker (in past incarnation, I’m told, known as a “happy face”) was tattooed on her right buttock; I imagined it all agloat as I returned its stare. The store manager, honoring our appointment, approached as the doorman unlocked the steel gates.
‘mister Dryden,” he said, ‘marvelous to see you after so long.”
We’d last been there the week before. Mister Dryden bought about sixty books a month. He thumbed them and threw them, having–his phrasing, tapping his forehead–filed them in the software bank. I was no longer sure if he remembered what he read even as he read it.
‘searching particulars?” the manager asked.
“No,” said Mister Dryden, eyeing the heights of the store for crawlers attempting a sneak; I’d already cleared. “Clerk me.”
“Yes, sir,” said the manager, clapping his hands, speaking to his assistant. “Clerk, please!”
“Clerk!” snapped the assistant. A fellow with glasses approached and stood before us. I was a foot taller and forty years younger.
“Clerk here,” he said.
“I’ve been here sixteen years, sir.”
Mister Dryden put his hands on the clerk’s shoulders and spat in his face. His temperament had been uneven, of late.
We went to the businessing section. As Mister Dryden strolled the aisles, he selected his books, throwing them at the clerk, who caught them with the ease that comes with inborn talent. I wandered ahead.
Mister Dryden doubled back–inadvertently, I suspect–coming up to an elderly lady wearing a veiled hat. He coughed several times as if clearing his throat. Neither she nor her bodyguard moved. He nodded to me. I walked over and stood before them.
“Trouble you want?” asked her bodyguard, leaning against the carrel, biographies of Proust and of Reagan on the shelves behind him. “Tu concedar, chocha?”
Mine is a peaceful soul, after all, and this appeared at once as a bluff sitch, long on theory and short on practice. I looked to Mister Dryden, awaiting another nod. The bodyguard scratched his chin, staring and sizing. He looked me over like a plum for the picking; I was prepped to be plucked. To lure the rash and feckless, I wear earrings–black onyx inverted crucifixes on gold hoops. Were he to grab one he would find that my plastic ears were velcroed on. The Health Service removed my originals years before, when Enid–my sister, an Ambient–suggested this ploy. The Ambient way is to bluff, then to fool–then, if need calls, to term. In this, my way and theirs washed similar streams, though at the time I felt convinced that the Ambient life could not be mine.
Mister Dryden, who seemed–as always, now–preoccupied, shook his head. The bodyguard and I bowed slightly toward each other and then we moved along to different aisles. Mister Dryden and Avalon made for the art department, and I followed.
No one else was in there; I could let slip my clutch and viz the prints on the wall. There were gorgeous reproductions of Bacon’s screaming popes; many of Goya’s Los Caprichos in hologram; some Chester Gould panels involving Flattop. Sch”nberg’s Pierrot Lunaire suffused the department’s air. Avalon flipped through a book of black and white photos of nude women bodybuilders in select attitudes–sinking and drowning in thick mud, being buggered by rude savages, torched like the martyrs of Smithfield, wheelbent like St. Catherine, skinstripped as was St. Bartholomew, piercearrowed in the style of St. Sebastian–the photog was wild with cunning invention. Mister Dryden tossed over a volume of Arbus; the clerk groaned, snaring it. The morning light, pale and gray, washed over Avalon’s face as she studied the photos, her dark eyes ashine; I thought how brown and soft she looked, where she wasn’t black and leathery. I wished we could hug until we’d crushed each other’s bones. She weightlifted, too; enough to stay fit for conferences.
She sidled over, rolling her tongue across her lips as if checking for flaws, showing me a print from a different book, pegged Auto Fatality 17; the artist possessed a keen sense of color but no eye for form. She grinned, tossing it onto the floor. Her leather moved as she did; I should have loved to skin her.
“Sonny better finish soon,” she whispered to me, taking my arm. ‘my feet kill me in these fuckin” heels.”
I said nothing. I smiled; her eyes sparkled like shattered glass, and in them I saw what she chose not yet to say. She twisted her hips, seeking comfort from her outfit. The suit rode higher in. Avalon, I knew, had come to appreciate Mister Dryden’s affections–such as they were–less and less, but she had not known him for so long as I had, and so was not as well attuned to his quirks, which had, after all, become quirkier during the preceding year.
“New suit, Shameless?” she asked me. I wore a two-piece in corporate blue with faint pinstripes, not unlike Mister Dryden’s. While he preferred a certain “lan in the garb of Avalon, he cared little for what I wore so long as it was protective, and fit.
“Bought it last week,” I said. It took me four weeks to receive it from the time I placed the order; were I not working for Dryco it would have taken ten months, and then more likely I would have received delivery on whatever had been available, no matter the size, color, or material–not always because of shortage, but generally for reason of discare. It was best to take what was given if you wanted anything at all, or so it was always said.
“You look good enough to beat,” she said, winking. As she stood near, brushing me, I felt my skin warm as if I were slowly being cooked. “Cost much?”
“Fifteen dollars,” I said.
“You never get blood on your suits, do you?” She rubbed the lapels between her thumb and forefinger. Her knee slid against mine, with purposeful caress.
I shook my head, attempting to think. Logic left my mind when she drew close; her touch left my thoughts agibber.
“The amateur’s mark,” I said.
“I’d like to get blood on his suit.”
“Think he’s nearly done?”
“Can’t be,” she said. “Clerk’s still alive.”
But he was done, and motioned for us to move. We reached the center desk; the store manager bounced over as if expecting to be fed a treat.
‘did we have everything you needed, sir?”
“No,” said Mister Dryden.
“Would you care to special any titles?”
“Timeshort,” he said, slapping his hand loudly against the counter, as if to demonstrate his existence to the skeptical. “I shop, I see to be itemed with my wants. I’ll do other if you absent my wants.”
Avalon and I waited, yawning, while they went at it tong-and-nail. We knew he would continue to shop there: it was the place of the manager to be abused by an owner; the place of an owner to abuse. Like the sunrise, you came to expect it. The clerk’s arms trembled beneath his load.
” –idiot,” concluded Mister Dryden. I could not help but notice how his neck darkened as he spoke; his anger was such that I felt that were he to have continued his screed the blood, rising, would have filled and burst his head asunder, spraying forth a foamy wave.
“House charge or Amex, sir?”
“Fine. Clerk!” The store manager clapped his hands. Mister Dryden had accumulated an enormous stack of books; thirty dollars worth, I estimated. The clerk lifted them onto the counter.
“Look out–” said the manager’s assistant, too late. One book fell onto the floor; the clerk held onto the rest of the stack. The book that fell was a leathered edition of Last Exit to Brooklyn. A gift, I suspected, though for whom I wasn’t sure; his son, whose birthday was two days off, wasn’t much for linear print.
“Durak!” the store manager shouted; the assistant slapped the clerk several times, as if attempting to wake him.
“Let’s exam,” said Mister Dryden, seemingly calm once again–it was terribly hard to easily discern his fury, until it alit. I handed him the book; he peered at it closely, as if deciphering subtle code. He vizzed out the window for a moment, raising eye to unjust Heaven and Godness therein. He glared at the store manager; pushed the book into the manager’s chest, a heart-blow.
“Scratched,” said Mister Dryden. I hoped he wouldn’t take this too far but suspected he would.
The store manager eyed the book a moment, at last pretending that he had glimpsed an appropriate flaw. “Let me see whether we might have another.”
“Fool,” said Mister Dryden, rapping another book over the manager’s head; the book split and bent. “Thank me.”
Mister Dryden hit him with the book again. This wasn’t a professional’s behavior, I thought, and–admittance–suddenly felt embarrassed to be connected with him at all; felt disgusted for having to feel such a way about him. But amateurs of any sort draw my ire deep, and he behaved no better just then than any amateur.
‘disirregardless,” he said, “If this is how I’m serviced I’ll spurn.” He almost sounded as if he meant it.
“At least,” said the store manager, holding his head as if quietly trying to rub the pain away, “I should let you deal with the one responsible as you see.”
Mister Dryden appeared so startled as I was; this was twisting anew. When scenes such as this usually unwound, the store managers beat the clerks themselves before firing them. There was but one thing to be done if this ploy was enforced.
“AO,” said Mister Dryden, staring at the clerk.
“I’ll be in the car,” said Avalon, turning away. I wished to take her and run, forever avoiding the unavoidable.
“Wait,” said Mister Dryden, scratching at his arms; she stopped. ‘safety first. Don’t alone streetways.” He looked at me, and nodded.
“For what reason?” I heard myself asking.
“He disturbed, O’malley,” he said, sounding calm again. “Victimize.”
“No sense doing what hasn’t point,” I said; he would have agreed, once. “Let’s–”
He knew and I knew that it was this or the gutter, awash in the millions, adrift with the chanceless, alone in the crowd.
“I don’t feel that this is part of my job.”
“He disturbed. Revenge me.”
Freedom rings but no one answers; it was difficult to remain ever optimistic. I sighed, turning, dreamlike, toward the clerk. A job’s a job, and I do my job; the work ethic, after all, made America what it is and I always found my pride in honest work. My father told me anyone could make it to the top; he was easily led, and so often seduced by other’s wiles, and for the loveliest lies the deepest fondness grows. I feared, that day, that I was so close to the top as I would get, if I did not find another way, some way, somehow; a kid allowed to dust the candy in the big window.
Look your form in mirrors and run mad, Ambients say, and I knew of what was told. As he sank, I sank, and I knew I could sink no more. That morn I felt my mind shift, and at once made ready to seek other–but there was no other, nor did it seem possible that there ever would be. Take the given or lose the all; that was the way. There I stood, sans ears, sans love, sans soul; part owner, part Ambient, each together less than each apart.
I pondered which of my suit’s accessories would be most appro: the batog, the chuks, the chain, or the trunch. I estimated that my batog–two sharp sticks lashed together with heavy wire– would do. Never howitzer a housefly. Once more, I paused; my limit neared. Mister Dryden spoke.
“Don’t see, muchacho,” he said, quivering as if being charged. ‘do.”