Kevin Guilfoile,
Cast of Shadows
(Knopf, 2005)

Cast of Shadows is quite a change for Kevin Guilfoile. His past successes have come as a humorist, primarily in essays and short pieces written for a variety of magazines and e-zines. (See my Rambles.NET interview with him for more background.) His first published novel brings out the dark side. Set in a future United States where human cloning is permitted, it opens with the murder of Anna Kat, daughter of Dr. Davis Moore. When we learn Moore works in a fertility clinic that specializes in cloning, the main plot idea seems obvious. Moore clones his daughter, right? Wrong. Cast of Shadows is instead based on a decidedly creepy idea. Rather than using cells from his dead daughter, Moore clones from semen found on her corpse. He hopes the genetic twin will show him and the police what the otherwise unknown assailant looks like.

A second plot line is equally grim. In it we get to know Mickey Fanning, a serial killer with a cause. As an instrument of his god, Fanning kills people associated with abortion clinics. Fanning is the clearest example of what Guilfoile is about. He wants to tell a good story, but also to explore some of the philosophical and moral issues associated with modern technology. He succeeds on both counts, though with an ambiguity that will cause considerable uneasiness in those seeking tidy conclusions or clear declarations of right and wrong. Cast of Shadows has neither -- even in the case of a serial killer. Most would consider Fanning's actions despicable. He knows that himself, but what if abortion does result in the death of a human being loved by God? Fanning believes someone needs to act and he just happens to be the only one with the necessary skill and guts.

Other characters raise questions of identity, the biggest philosophical issue running around Guilfoile's word processor. Is a clone a unique person or merely the biological "shadow" of the donor? Do characters in a complex computer simulation of reality think independently or are they weak, electronic shadows of the live players? Guilfoile will remind you of questions discussed late at night in college dorms. What is consciousness? Can we know the difference between good and evil? Is our fate pre-determined by our genes? How close can we come to knowing Truth?

Those compelled to classify a book will run into their own unanswerable questions. Is it mainstream, science fiction or the proverbial "thinking man's thriller"? Guilfoile likes the idea that it isn't easy to classify since his own reading is eclectic. The writers he admires the most include McCarry, Bradbury and Percy. Booksellers put them in different bins, but I'll drink to those choices as models for would-be authors in any genre from technical manuals to fantasy.

Let's just classify Cast of Shadows as worth reading. It has all the right ingredients -- good writing, characters who are believably human and a plot that would work as a movie. Guilfoile's first published novel won't be his last.

by Ron Bierman
24 September 2005

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