Physican, Heal Thyself (or Dont'!): Kem Nunn's Chance

Categories: OC Bookly

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Chance means opportunity, too, as in the great one I had to interview a favorite author, Kem Nunn, one morning before he headed off to work writing scripts for Sons of Anarchy, his day job lately when not writing novels about the other kind of chance. Nunn's latest novel further establishes, as they say, his reputation as a prose stylist whose both sly and somehow genuine embrace of tough-guy existentialism, darkness, nature, a celebratory and yet cautiously discontented delight in details and surprise seems always to have layers and resonance. He produces great lines, to remind you that nothing is for keeps, even as you are convinced of the verity of place and experience. Yes, he gets tagged with the "noir" label, which one hopes is only handy shorthand toward spreading the word about the fiction of a son of Southern California whose previous books have done so much for our chancy region, from Tapping the Source, his classic so-called "surf noir" portrait of both then-dilapidated and sketchy old downtown Huntington Beach and the ghost-towny deserts east of here, with surfers, runaways, drug-gangster bikers and a missing sister detective story and a sympathetic hero who grows up fast. 

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Son of Pomona
But you already knew that, you hip reader. And probably also that, by way of the OC in OC Bookly, Nunn got his MFA at UCI, where he studied with the legendary Oakley "Warlock" Hall. If not, go out immediately and buy all the novels by Nunn, to cover your ass intellectually and culturally. There;s Unassigned Territory,The Dogs of Winter and Pomona Queen and his book just before this one, Tijuana Straits, a kind of eco-thriller with the big waves and a love story and the politics, too, of life and struggle right on the border, La Frontera being perhaps one of the most beautiful and also evil places you could find if you were looking, and Nunn is looking, with that slightly arch aesthetic of the Old Testament shamus whose fatalism is challenged by, if you will forgive my foray into a bit of theology, brightly flawed New Testament redemption, hope, salvation, and protagonistic savior-behavior. Hey, that rhymes!

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Son of a gun
The funny photo of Raymond Chandler, left, is meant to further encourage comparisons to Nunn and also broaden them. Material and style and tone aside, both are just plain terrific literary writers, with Nunn crediting all the ones you'd expect, including Flannery O'Connor, Robert Stone, Cormac McCarthy. Indeed, a lot of his characters seem always to have some kind of gun to their heads, sometimes real, sometimes symbolic, that helpfully urgent gesture causing them to have to act better, or at least act, and sometimes just to be around when the gun goes off, usually in the wrong place, at the wrong time. 
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Foggy goes a courtin'
The place of Nunn's newest is the Bay Area, with him doing for San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland what he's done so well for So Cal. Make it scary! Scarier, but also funny. It's a mash-up of mathematics and science, brain injury, multiple personalities, difficult parenthood, compromised and dangerous and elicit love, with a winningly flawed hero, natch, who trespasses by way of ethics and his own much-tested moral code. He is Dr. Eldon Chance (great name, Dr. Chance), a forensic neuro-psychiatrist who writes diagnoses of people who are nuts or head-injured, who need a medical man to testify so they can perhaps get some kind of justice, or mercy, insurance or medical treatment, or stay our of or perhaps in jail. The reader certainly learns about what is going on inside the human noggin, both a healthy one and a not-so. There are a number of walking, talking specimens who all pass for sane, calling attention to the flimsy distinctions. Chance has a femme fatale to outshine or, better, outshame or frighten all the rest, and a dangerous buddy conspirator, this novel seeming to romance the buddy-movie doppleganger alter ego theme to its maximum. Oh, and yes, there is of course the corrupt cop who happens to be whose violent and crazy boyfriend? 


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Watch where you step!
Throw in the obvious if thrilling homage to Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and that amazing Robert Mitchum movie "Out of the Past," and the light and fog, bright and darkly dualistic descriptions of Bay Area weather and mood, and of course the keen, sardonic if always empathetic observations of regular people, and you will never ride BART the same way again.

 

But, happily for us (or unhappily, as it happens, but instructively), Dr. Eldon Chance narrates it all, being our docent of doom and delicious gloom, with danger and a difficult dame, and those frequent dark internal reminders of the ethos and motives of the anti-hero and, in this case, wounded hero:  "Chance took it as a great irony, and not a happy one, that if h e'd spent the first half of his life trying to remember, stuffing his head with all manner of data and detail, he would surely spend the second and final half consumed by a desire to forget."

Instead of the classic eight million stories in the naked city, there are, notes Dr. Chance, 

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What's up, Doc?

"over nine hundred entries in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  In the time it took to traverse a city block, he was able to diagnose any number of neurological and psychiatric disorders, including tardive dyskinesia, Parkinsonian gait, one cervical dystonia together with an impressive display of what were no doubt substance-induced and quite possibly hallucinatory states of both agitation and elation, and that was just inside the bus."

Cool.  Dark. Giddy-making. Dangerous. There's more, and more of the kind of darkly hilarious irony of this messed-up doctor who can't quite just do no harm, bending the rules, crossing the line, breaking the law and yet somehow does all that he needs to be to stay heroic, in the ways in which that fulfills a tradition of self-knowing, self-deceiving good-bad guys who wait between the waves, in the shadows, on the borders between those difficult to reconcile, much less live in locales called Evil and Not so Evil.  

My hipper tv and film-recommending friends recommend "John from Cincinnati," the David Milch ("Deadwood") and Kem Nunn collaboration which ran for a single season on HBO. I've just added it to my Netflix list.

Chance, Kem Nunn, Sicribner, 311 pgs., $26.00

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.



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