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The Jack the Ripper murders that plagued late 19th century London were the work of the first modern serial killer. They have also been the subject of many a literary investigation and speculation, both fictional and otherwise. The basic ingredients of most succeeding serial killing sprees are present in the Jack the Ripper case; dead women, many of them prostitutes; a twisted killer who mutilates his victims; a police investigation that sputters and starts without an apparent understanding of the nature of the perpetrator; and the potential for so-called copycat crimes. Author Greg Guma turns these murders and their context into a quest that spans time and genre in his newest novel Dons of Time (Fomite, 2013.)
The protagonist in these pages is a thirty-something slacker son of one of organized crime’s biggest figures. Hailing from Croatia, this Don has a multitude of interests beyond maintaining and expanding his business empire by any means required. His son, Tonio, has spent the better part of his life avoiding the family business and pretty much everything else until his father Shelley demands that he oversee one of the family’s newest acquisitions, a company called TELPORT that is fine-tuning a teleportation device. Despite his recalcitrance to involve himself in anything his father is in charge of, Tonio grows more interested in the company’s products and their potential. Indeed, he decides that he can even solve one of his pet mysteries–the Jack the Ripper case– using those products.
During his work with TELPORT, Tonio discovers much more about his life, his spook uncle who worked in US intelligence and then mysteriously disappeared, and the specifics of how his father really conducts business. The latter discovery was worse than Tonio had ever considered, even with the knowledge his father had begun his money-making activities in organized crime. He also falls in love with a social reformer named Annie Besant who lived and organized in London during the same period as Jack the Ripper murdered women. As he moves between eras, his father restores Tesla’s last laboratory, and the TELPORT Corporation makes compromises with the Washington intelligence apparatus.
By weaving his tale of intrigue and mystery, Guma brings up the issues surrounding surveillance in a world newly aware of the ever-expanding panopticon. He also takes a look the nature of history and of power. Tonio’s father Shelley understands the nature of the latter all too well, telling Tonio in so many words that he who owns history has an upper hand at controlling the world. He then begins buying the tools that, by changing history, could also end up controlling it. The dangers of science for science sake are part of the tale in these pages. So are the dangers inherent to the fact of its consequent manipulation by corporate and government funding.
Guma is a longtime journalist, whose resume includes co-founding The Vanguard, one of Vermont’s first underground/alternative newspapers in the 1970s. He is also the author of a couple political and history texts. In addition, he spent numerous years as a reporter, and did a stint as Executive Director of Pacifica Radio. His understanding of popular movements and general history comes through in this current fiction. The Occupy movement gets a notice, causing a character to make the observation, “We got hung up in process,” says the character Harry. “We were like Congress.” For anyone who spent too many hours in general assemblies during Occupy while consensus was attempted, this sentence rings all too true. As mentioned before, the ethics of surveillance and covert ops are part of the tale, as is the relationship between government, corporate capital, and science.
Moving back and forth in time and space, Dons of Time is many things. It is a history lesson, a fictive speculation on time travel, the nature of history, a bit of a romance and just a hint of conspiracy fiction a la Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy. In this novel, Guma has given us a well-written and smartly told tale that is both captivating and intellectually provocative.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.