Gene Wolfe's novel FREE LIVE FREE is a fantastical tale set in an American downtown (hinted to be Chicago) in the early 1980s. The mysterious old man Benjamin Free finds that his home is scheduled to be demolished to build a highway overpass. Seeking to put off the demolition by keeping the house permanently occupied, he places a classified ad inviting people to live there for free. Who would answer such an ad? Losers such as the traveling salesman Ozzie Barnes, the overweight hooker Candy Garth, the out-of-work private investigator Jim Stubb, and the Gypsy occultist Madame Serpentina. When Free goes missing, these four decide to find him, and soon find themselves wrapped up in a conspiracy greater than they can imagine, pursued by government agents.
Before the science fiction basis of the plot is revealed near the end, the characters proceed Keystone Kops-like through a serious of zany episodes. Wolfe loves to construct his books as puzzles, and quite often meaning of one scene is only revealed in a following one, or when the same scene is told again from another character's perspective. No doubt many readers will find this a frustrating cock and bull story for most of its length, but it holds interest due to the details with which Wolfe endows the lives of his four protagonists, especially the techniques of desperate salesmen and the tribulations of prostitution. The plot does start to pick up in the last 50 pages, and I don't regret reading the novel to the end.
But the great downside of FREE LIVE FREE, which makes it something of a disappointment in Wolfe's output up to this time, is that it is written in exceedingly pedestrian prose. In his works of the 1970s (The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, "Seven American Nights" and THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN), Wolfe was a master of prose style, with his narrators lapsing into Proustian reverie that made for a number of quotable moments. Here he has focused so much on the characterization and plot that he has forgoten to write prose that truly moves us. Sadly, this trend continued through his other novels of the 1980s and most of his work since.