Friday, March 28, 2014

Beyond the Surf: Chance by Kem Nunn

One of the few writers whose work I want to read as soon as it appears, Kem Nunn, with books like Tapping the Source, Dogs of Winter and Tijuana Straits, is best known as one of the foremost practitioners of what is loosely termed called surf-noir. Unlike his  fellow surf-noirist Don Winslow, Nunn has yet to write an epic novel like the incredible Power of the Dog, nor relies upon minimalist chapters or books that could just as easily be  screenplays. No, Nunn's novels are decidedly more conventional and more consistent affairs. Invariably intelligent, they also make for compulsive reading. But as good as his surf novels are, Nunn's latest, Chance, is, despite a flaw or two, a major step up. It's a truly scary book, beautifully written about obsession, power, and the vagaries of the human mind.

Set in San Francisco, the novel centres on neuropsychiatrist Chance, a high achiever from a wealthy family whose life seems to be collapsing around him.  He's about to be divorced, he's got problems with his daughter, and his practice has hit the skids,  most of his work deriving from his performances as an expert witness in court cases. To make matters worse, he falls for one of his few patients, a woman with multiple personalities, who happens to be married to a violent and corrupt cop. Chance needs help and has it thrust upon him in the form of an  overgrown psychopathic vigilante-type who never sleeps.

Chance is one of those noir anti-heroes, not dissimilar to the sort one might come across in a Jim Thompson novel. In other words, well meaning, helpless, marginal, and caught in a spiral over which he has less and less control. In fact, he's so marginal psychologically one wonders how he could have possibly qualified as a neuropsychiatrist. With dodgy ethics to boot, he definitely needs help, mostly for matters mental. The best one can say is that he is only human. Which means he allows his obsessions to get the better of him. And chooses his friends badly. Though at least he  has friends. And while everyone at one time or another fantasises about seeking retribution on those who deserve it, Chance, a normally mild person with a checkered past, does so by proxy, which only adds to his problems. 

After finishing the book, I couldn't help but wonder how Nunn's recent career as a TV writer for  shows like Sons of Anarchy, John From Cincinnati and Deadwood, might have influenced his writing of this particular novel. If it has influenced him, it's, on the whole, probably for the better.  His writing seems to have become more lyrical, tighter, with an even better sense of pacing and suspense.  But, on the other hand, it might also have had an adverse effect. While the novel builds to a strong, nail-biting climax, it's final few pages, once the dust has settled- here I don't to give anything away- reads like something of an add-on. If I'd been his editor, I would have asked him to cut those final few pages down or take them out altogether.  For me it seemed somewhat confusing, even unnecessary, particularly if one takes into account the fireworks that precede it. Sure, it could be that I read those last  pages late at night, unable to put the book down, wanting to finish it so badly that reading it was practically making my eyes bleed. But that final page could even be interpreted as Nunn pitching for a sequel. That might work for a TV series but not for a novel. I could be wrong, but that's how it  felt to me in what is  otherwise an excellent novel. Of course, the ending could just as easily mean that Chance's obsessions are about to be recycled. In which case, the novel is more subtle than I'm giving it credit for. I wouldn't put it past Nunn. But, then, you can read it and decide for yourself.

1 comment :

Paul D. Marks said...

Woody, I found your review of "Chance" interesting and a good take on the book. And I love Kem Nunn! That said, I have to say I found this book to be pretty disappointing. I don't want to say amy more specifics 'cause I don't want to give anything away. But I was really looking forward to this. It's hard when someone you like so much comes out with book only once every few years. And even harder when it disappoints. But that won't stop me from anticipating the next one.