Harvey Smith — who you probably know as a chief architect of Deus Ex and of last year’s hit stealth/action hybrid Dishonored — has made games about secret alien UFO labs and supernatural steampunk assassins. So you might expect a novel from the co-founder of Arkane Studios to be heavy with genre trappings and filled with fantastical imaginings.
But, Big Jack Is Dead isn’t that. Smith’s first work of fiction is an appealingly messy, down-to-earth chunk of near-autobiography. Peppered with astringent blends of the poetic and the mundane, the novel — set in 1999, just as the dotcom bubble is about to burst — revolves around Jack Hickman, a software developer who has to fly home after learning that his brutish, abusive dad has killed himself. Check out the opening lines:
I flew to Houston first class. Why not? Your dad only kills himself once. The seat next to me was empty, which was great since I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. So what brings you to Texas?
A game design veteran of 20 years, Smith knows that he’s playing (writing?) against type. “My fear was two-fold,” he told me during a phone call on Monday. “One was people would radically misinterpret it. Or it was that [people would think] “Oh gee, I thought this was going to be about cybernetic ninjas.”
“One of the goals of the book was to depict a child that would be sympathetic, and the same person as an adult that is not sympathetic,” Smith continued. “It fascinates me that, if you read a news story about how a child was harmed, people are so sympathetic and so outraged. But if you read a news story about a man who robbed a bank, they’re furious and full of anger.”
“I’m not saying I know the right answer to this [juxtaposition] by the way,” Smith told me. “But I am aware that that person who robbed a bank or did a bad thing was at some point probably a kid who went through some terrible circumstances that led to them being that way. If it was 20 years earlier in time, it would have evoked tons of empathy from people involved. But after a certain date, it’s like, ‘OK, you’re not a kid anymore. I hate you.’ But more deeply than that. Part of the goal was to show the same character in a sympathetic and unsympathetic light.”
That character — little Jack in the flashback, third-person 1970s sequences and an moody acerbic adult in the first-person 1999 passages — holds life at a distance. Hickman’s dad’s white trash outbursts make him shellshocked and fearful as a kid and then rendered him a numb adult.
Big Jack bellowed, “I told him I was gonna knock him through that wall if he didn’t stop that slurpin’!” He looked across the small table at his wife and son where they rocked back and forth over the boy’s chair. “You don’t stop cryin’, I’m gonna give you something to cry about.” He put one hand on his leather belt and the other touched the enormous, silver-plated buckle. The gesture brought to his mind the motions of a gunfighter, which pleased him. He relaxed, watching them huddled before him.
Shushed repeatedly by his mother, Jack stopped wailing and choked out cries only when the sobbing escaped his control. Finally, he was quiet. His eyes were red and wet with tears.
Big Jack stood up sharply and looked at the clock mounted in the stove. “Lord God… Now look what you done, boy. You most likely made me late for work.” He looked down at his son. “You want Daddy to get fired? Huh? So you and your momma have to live out in the alley with the niggers?”
Jack sniffed and answered with his head bowed. “No, sir.”
Smith used military service to get away from his own family dysfunction. “I was 20. It was a way to literally escape this small town. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had no clue,” Smith confessed. “I got so lucky because I didn’t end up in some backwater North Dakota military base where it’s just frozen all the time. Instead I ended up in a very populated German area and I lived in this attic apartment of this German family. I was part of this writing group with the University of Maryland. I met these amazing professors that got off by being expatriated humanities teachers. It was all pretty life-changing.”
The novel’s elder Jack began as a fictional avatar for Smith’s own father. “I had ignored my father’s suicide for a long time and was now thinking about it in a more cathartic way. There were moments where this character started out as my dad. Then, I began to mix him with Yosemite Sam in a way, he said. “He has this befuddled, angry, authoritarian redneck thing going on all the time. The more I got into that character, the more I started to love the character, even though he’s a hateful man. He’s the source of many problems for different people in the book. I don’t know why, but I fell in love with him.”
Work on the novel started in 2005, during what Smith describes as a very dark time in his life. “During the time that our team worked on Dishonored, I would pull it out periodically when I wanted to take a break from collaborative team-based creative medium and work on something solo. Whenever I wasn’t slammed, I would edit it,” he told me. “I’d make an entire pass. I’d start at the beginning on some weekend and I’d work until the middle of the next week reading the whole thing again and retooling some of the language.”
Semi-biographical as it is, parts of Big Jack also feel like they refer to Smith’s professional life as a game-maker, too. Jack Hickman doesn’t smack people around like his father did to him but he does imagine violent, disturbing acts of physical violence. These roiling rage-filled fantasies are the most video game-like things in the book and come out when frustration and/or impotence bubbles up uncontrollably.
An urge came over me, to grab his arm and yank until the gristle popped in his shoulder. I saw myself biting down on the claw of his finger, crunching and slicing through the first knuckle with my teeth, taking him by the throat and throwing him through the window. I imagined him lying in the gravel and leaves just outside the window, covered in his own blood, shards of glass rising from his body and trembling with his breath like the fins and plates of some decrepit dinosaur.
I saw my father standing in the company of angels, twisting his head to look up at them, his eyes wild and red-rimmed. They were tall and beautiful, with infinite understanding and compassion. My father, stunted and filthy. I tore into them, firing a handgun into their beautiful faces at point blank range. They shrieked and wailed as I poured gasoline over their feathered wings.
They represent the moments when Jack comes closest to falling prey to his father emotional tendencies. When I told Smith that these fevered passages reminded me of melee kills or QTE finishers from a video game, he was surprised. Was that intentional? “I wish I could say yes,” he said. “Another goal of the book was to write about things that we all occasionally do or think, but that we don’t talk about because they’re not socially acceptable.”
It’s that disparity of public and private faces that makes Big Jack Is Dead fall in line with the Southern Gothic literary tradition of writers like William Faulkner. Once the family goes into a house and shuts the doors, it could be all sunshine and teachable moments or it could be something horrible,” Smith told me. The book is well-observed with regard to human nature and sort of hypnotizes the reader with the emotional spikes and alleys both Jacks go through. Readers will find themselves transported into the heads of a set of fascinating characters and, while they’re not controllable like video game personas, everyone in the book is under the sway of the same psychological forces that we all face in the real world. It’s a grim, funny and ultimately good book. You can get Big Jack Is Dead here.