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

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. 
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!

"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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