10 Feb 2006
Never Count Out the Dead” is a black-hearted joy ride set in a corrupt, culturally and morally dead L.A. that out-Chandler’s Chandler. It’s “Pulp Fiction” crossed with Albert Camus as directed by John Woo. In crime fiction, Teren is riding shotgun with James Ellroy in a ‘66 jet-black Fastback at night somewhere beyond Barstow, these two lost boys driving on a river of concrete, like Huck and Jim, toward their collective hearts of darkness. And if you think that’s a little out there, you have some idea of what Teren’s offering.
An improbable triangle is at the heart of this noir thriller. In 1987, Dee Story takes her 14-year-old daughter Shay into the desert night to entrap and kill a police officer, Victor Sully, who was going to testify in a drug case. The attempted hit goes very, very wrong, leaving Sully badly wounded and a suspect in drug dealing. He withers under the media spotlight, is cut loose from the department and his life goes down the drain.
Flash-forward a decade, and Sully is called back to L.A. by an agoraphobic columnist who writes under the by-line of Landshark. It turns out the hit was part of a larger conspiracy involving a family of developers and a school being built on a toxic dump site. The thieves are falling out over money. Exposure is threatened, plots are laid, and Sully returns to find the truth and extract his revenge.
But all that is a backdrop to the human struggles that take up most of the book, the loves and hates and past sins that bind us sometimes unwillingly to each other. Shay tries to make a life for herself away from her manipulating mother. Dee makes a plausible and scary villain, at turns protective and hurtful to her daughter, but when hopped up on speed a loose cannon equally alternating between a determination to hold it all together, or blow everything apart.
And lying underneath the layer of angst and blood is a boy’s adventure story. Behind Landshark’s four-story house in the mountains overlooking L.A. is an elaborate information-gathering network. His clubhouse of a mansion includes a shooting gallery, an arsenal that would make Charlton Heston’s trigger finger itch and enough computers to fly the Space Shuttle. Landshark also has his crew of Baker Street irregulars, including a bipolar cousin that could have escaped from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next” and the obligatory computer hacker.
To say that Boston Teran’s prose is over the top is like saying the Atlantic Ocean’s a little damp. The pace never slackens, except when Teren’s fondness for finding striking substitutes for verbs runs unchecked at the story’s climax. With some very good reasons, the boys and girls in Teren’s world express their views of themselves, life, death, redemption and existence so despairing as to make Ingmar Bergman look like Pee-Wee Herman. The earnest end-of-the-world symphony of bullets and blood-letting with either make you roll your eyes, or it will grab you hard by the short nerves and won’t let you go. There’s no in-between.