I finished this a bit ago, and have been thinking on it since. I hadn’t really remembered the story all that well, and had utterly forgotten the main theme, which is about choice.
There are two main characters, Veto Skreemer, and Charles Finnegan. They hardly interact, at least directly, and barely meet. Skreemer is the top gangster in America in the early years after an epidemic has obliterated civil society, and it takes strongmen (and at least one strongwoman, though there are not many of these) to simply hold things together. Charles is a regular guy, caught up in the events–swept along by them, really. He does his best, and in a world where only the strong survive his strength is his belief that he can choose to remain a good man.
Skreemer has limited precognition, and has had since his very earliest days. He knows enough about the future to seem unstoppable. Also ruthless, since he positions himself to take advantage of the events he can foresee, even to the point of seeming to make them happen. Such a one is the time his number one guy gets his face eaten half-off by the rats of one of Skreemer’s opponents. Of course, since he knows what is going to happen, there’s no functional difference between taking advantage of what he knows will happen and making it happen. However, he has also spent most of his life searching for a way to break out of what he knows must happen.
Finnegan’s choices are very difficult. Death and mayhem lurk around every corner of his life, waiting to pounce. The children he and his wife, Karla, have and raise die with alarming frequency. Not all of his choices are–to our eyes–legal. Few of them are bad. One of them is terrible, and leads to such great loss that he vanishes from his family for years. In this time his youngest son, Tim, grows up. It is Tim who knows both threads of this story because, after Finnegan returns to his family, Tim–who knows no other world, and who barely knows and cannot fully understand his long-absent father’s values–joins Skreemer’s gang as body guard to Skreemer’s pregnant wife, Gloreen.
Finnegan recovers from his loss, and returns to his family. By this time at least four children are gone; only his wife and Tim remain in the squalid tenement. Finnegan has been wandering the streets for years, drunkenly running from the memory of his terrible choice. He also runs from thugs on the streets. One night he runs into the church where he and Karla buried their young daughter many years before. At the height of a drunken rage he finds a moment of grace and redemption. And then he goes on with his life, seeing what has happened, and seeing, not the man he hoped he’d be, but a man he can accept being. He is unsure that what happened in the church was something other than what it appeared, and holds the sacred perspective on it as easily as he holds the mundane explanation. Whatever happened in the church, Finnegan came out of it a man healed of his wounds, though fully aware of his injuries.
Skreemer never attains redemption. Among the events he has always foreseen is the manner of his death–shot and falling to his death, childless, from a balcony. When the time comes Gloreen is in a safe house with Tim, giving birth. Skreemer faces his enemies, gets shot, falls from the balcony, and… grabs the edge and pulls himself to safety. Giddy, he makes his way to the safe house. It appears he has broken the pattern of his life, that he is free of his predestined death, and will be able to live a normal life–one where he does not know what happens next.
It does not work out.
Neither Skreemer nor his child survives the day. Skreemer dies believing he had no choice at all. Tim brings Gloreen to the only place he has to turn for support and safety: his parent’s tenement. Eventually, they marry and have children, one of whom, Peter, narrates this story.