Chance: A Novelby Kem Nunn
From Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner Kem Nunn and “principal heir to the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West” (The Washington Post)—an intense psychological suspense novel about a San Francisco neuropsychiatrist who becomes sexually involved with a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder, whose/i>/i>
From Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner Kem Nunn and “principal heir to the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West” (The Washington Post)—an intense psychological suspense novel about a San Francisco neuropsychiatrist who becomes sexually involved with a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder, whose pathological ex-husband is an Oakland homicide detective.
A dark tale involving psychiatric mystery, sexual obsession, fractured identities, and terrifyingly realistic violence—Chance is set amid the back streets of California’s Bay Area, far from the cleansing breezes of the ocean. Dr. Eldon Chance, a neuropsychiatrist, is a man primed for spectacular ruin. Into Dr. Chance’s blighted life walks Jaclyn Blackstone, the abused, attractive wife of an Oakland homicide detective, a violent and jealous man. Jaclyn appears to be suffering from a dissociative identity disorder. In time, Chance will fall into bed with her—or is it with her alter ego, the voracious and volatile Jackie Black? The not-so-good doctor, despite his professional training, isn’t quite sure—and thereby hangs his fascination with her. Meanwhile, Chance also meets a young man named D, a self-styled, streetwise philosopher skilled in the art of the blade. It is around this trio of unique and dangerous individuals that long guarded secrets begin to unravel, obsessions grow, and the doctor’s carefully arranged life comes to the brink of implosion.
Amid San Francisco’s fluid, ever-shifting fog, in the cool, gray city of love, Dr. Chance will at last be forced to live up to his name. Chance is a twisted, harrowing, and impossible-to-put-down head trip through the fun house of fate, mesmerizing until the very last page.
Best known for his surfer noir classics Tapping the Source and Tijuana Straits, Nunn switches gears with this brilliant and cerebral psychological thriller. The quiet, ordered life of Dr. Eldon Chance, a recently divorced Bay Area forensic neuropsychiatrist, begins to unravel when he makes a series of ill-fated decisions. First, he gets involved with Jaclyn Blackstone, a beautiful, emotionally fragile patient who can’t seem to escape from her abusive, manipulating husband, who is an Oakland homicide detective. Chance crosses another line by hiring D, a massive, enigmatic man who hangs out at an antique shop, to recreate a missing piece for a set of furniture he plans to sell as original. Chance soon finds himself in the unlikely role of student to D’s teacher in the realities of street justice. When Jaclyn’s husband begins targeting Chance, the good doctor is forced to depend on his new mentor to survive. By the surprising conclusion, we learn that all the main players have hidden histories of their own. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Feb.)
Nunn, who forged his fiction-writing career by concentrating on surfers and their sport (Tijuana Straits, 2004, etc.), changes gears in this gritty portrait of a neuropsychologist named Chance. Eldon Chance sees broken people in his job, so it's almost inevitable that some of those individuals would bleed over into his personal life. Or what's left of his personal life. Now that his wife, Carla, is divorcing him, and his daughter, Nicole, is growing more and more distant, Chance is starting to feel the loneliness and disengagement of losing his home life. With everything in flux and under pressure from the IRS to pay back taxes in connection with Carla's business, Chance uncharacteristically jumps into a situation with a woman who is both mesmerizing and dangerous. Jaclyn Blackstone was a referral that Chance should have kept at a professional distance, but instead, the beautiful, fractured woman evolves into something more significant. After Chance becomes enmeshed in her life, his own becomes complicated: Jaclyn suffers from a dual personality disorder that causes her to transform into the sexually obsessed Jackie, but both of Jaclyn's incarnations are unhappily married to a vicious, abusive police officer who makes it clear to Chance that his involvement with Jaclyn/Jackie will cost him everything he holds dear. But Chance has a bizarre ace up his sleeve in the form of his odd relationship with a man named D, a giant wall of a human being who appears not to be afraid of anyone or anything. Eventually, Nunn's characters cross paths, and Chance's decisions cause his life to careen from slightly off balance to out of control. Nunn, a writer with a gift for subtlety and wordplay, spins a story that is both mesmerizing and a bit confusing. Readers will find Nunn's story well-written for the most part but not always engaging. Lovers of Nunn's previous novels may discover in Chance a less than creditable antihero.
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Read an Excerpt
EARLY ON, before it had become apparent just how acrimonious, costly, and downright mean spirited the divorce would become, Chance had thought to find a place in or near the Presidio, a small house perhaps, with a view of the water, the proximity of redwood and cedar. The fantasy was short lived. The good places were expensive and hard to come by though nothing in the city was cheap anymore, that other Summer of Love a long time gone.
He’d settled finally for a modest one-bedroom apartment with a shared basement garage at the edge of the Sunset from whose front-most windows he might on occasion glimpse the sea. The streets in his new neighborhood, though raked at a slight angle to run downward in the general direction of the Pacific Ocean, were uniformly flat and treeless, bordered by long lines of gaily painted stucco and wooden structures. On sunny days he found these streets infused with such light as he’d come to associate with the deserts of the Southwest, their hopeful pastels bleached of meaningful distinctions. On foggy days the colors were made impotent as well, barely distinguishable from the damp concrete sidewalks, the asphalt streets, or the pale, slate gray sky. Analogies he might have drawn with his own life appeared tiresome even to him.
What he’d taken as the decline of things in general had coincided with a particularly disturbing case. It was not a complicated case. There were no legal or medical puzzles to be solved. There were only the facts, which he had summarized as follows:
At the time of my evaluation Mariella Franko was 34 months post a head-on motor vehicle accident in which her 68-year-old father was killed in gruesome fashion. (In an effort to avoid a wayward dairy cow that had wandered into his lane, her father had collided with an oncoming delivery truck. He was decapitated. His head rested in the rear seat. Mariella remained trapped next to her father’s body till freed by the Jaws of Life. She remembers shouting “Daddy!” many times while in the car.)
Review of emergency medical services indicates her Glasgow Coma Scale was 15 at the time of their arrival. Her chief complaint was listed as “My daddy . . . I want my daddy!” She was medicated with intravenous fentanyl and transferred by ambulance to a CalStar helicopter that carried her to Stanford. Upon arrival, she was crying and asking for her father. No fractures or internal injuries were found. She was monitored overnight and sent home with plans for follow-up by a primary care physician.
A psychiatric evaluation done one month later describes anxiety, depression, startle reactions, spells of tachycardia, tachypnea, and perspiration together with intrusive thoughts of her father. It was noted that she had spent three months off work and attempted to distract herself by trying to watch television. Her social life had become very constricted, with severe withdrawal and isolation. She described a predominant state of hopelessness and lack of motivation. Ms. Franko was found to be suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. A course of psychotherapy together with antidepressant medication was recommended.
Unfortunately, Ms. Franko went on to receive neither psychotherapy nor pharmacotherapy and remained, at the time of my evaluation, anxious, depressed, and struggling to avoid any such thoughts, mental images, or feelings as might return her to the night of the accident. I agree that Ms. Franko suffers from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. She faced a life-threatening situation, believed she was going to die, was present at her father’s death, and was trapped in a vehicle with him under gruesome circumstances. The photographs I have been shown speak for themselves. It is unfortunate that a second psychiatric consultation was not obtained until more than 2 years had passed following the accident. And while her avoidance of mental health care professionals is understandable, it is exactly this avoidance to which health care providers should have responded. . . .
Eldon J. Chance, MD
Associate Clinical Professor
Department of Psychiatry
UCSF School of Medicine
There was more to the report but that was the gist of the thing. Someone’s insurance company had retained him to evaluate the nature and severity of her psychological trauma. Chance was a forensic neuropsychiatrist and made the better part of his living explaining often complicated neurological conditions to juries and or attorneys who would soon be standing in front of juries, in cases ranging from personal injury to elder abuse to undue influence. He was sometimes asked for evaluations by other doctors and sometimes retained by family members or estates. It was not the practice he’d once imagined but it was the practice he had. He rarely saw someone more than once or twice and rarely worked with them as patients.
And so it had been with Mariella Franko. He had seen her only once, at the time of his evaluation. He did not know what had become of her, how her case had come out, or whether or not she had received any of the recommended therapies or medications. Nor, it no doubt goes without saying, was she the only patient he saw that summer. It was a season in which any number of cases might have occupied his thoughts.
J.C. is a 36-year-old, right-handed white woman with a long and complicated medical history. The product of an attempted abortion (born prematurely at 7 months) she suffers a mild form of mental retardation, the result of oxygen deprivation at the time of the botched procedure and premature birth. The patient admits to a long-standing incestuous relationship with her father and after 7 miscarriages gave birth to a son with numerous congenital anomalies. . . .
M.J. is a 42-year-old, right-handed black woman with several years of college education. The patient relates that at the age of 36, while walking from her job in a bookstore to her home in the Mission District, she was assaulted by an Hispanic male standing over six feet tall and weighing more than two hundred pounds. She has only partial recollections of the assault but remembers having her head struck repeatedly against a fire hydrant after trying to run from her attacker. M.J. states that over the next year she was extremely depressed and spent 12 months watching television or staying drunk. During this time she acquired a handgun and would occasionally discharge it in frustration and rage. Her closest friend was a pet rat, which she says would come over and put its paw on her hand to console her. M.J. currently lives alone in low-budget housing for the homeless and mentally disabled in San Francisco. . . .
L.S. is a 46-year-old woman who grew up with an abusive alcoholic mother. The identity of her father has never been made known to her. L.S. is at pains to present herself as an individual with learning disabilities. She states that as a young child she seemed to learn everything “backward.” She would read not only individual words but also pages backward. If she is forced to read a book beginning at the front, she seems to have little sense of the story until she is able to read it again from the end to the front. Although the bulk of L.S.’s time is spent caring for the 104 exotic birds she owns, her second greatest passion is reading about mental illness and learning disabilities. The patient states that for as long as she can remember she has felt depressed, empty, and uncertain as to who she is. . . .
D.K. is a 30-year-old right-handed white male last employed as a graphic artist in San Jose, now four years status post a pedestrian vs. truck injury at the Port of Oakland with resulting head injury. The patient states that while he is unaware of changes in his personality, he is also aware that others, including his wife, say that his personality has changed completely. His wife further states the patient has confided to her that he believes he will someday play a major role in a battle between Satan, Yahweh, and Jesus. Six months ago, in the context of believing it necessary to cleanse his body in preparation for the coming conflict, the patient ingested a range of household cleaners, including Hexol and Clorox. . . .
Still, it was Mariella Franko who came along for the ride on those first dreary days of an unusually hot and early summer, hunting apartments in the City by the Bay, fielding papers from opposing attorneys, seeing patients, writing reports, watching as the money melted away like a late snow, departing with a good deal more rapidity and in greater amounts than it had ever arrived, watching as the life he’d so carefully arranged for himself, his wife, and daughter broke apart upon the rocks of a heretofore scarcely imagined reality.
His soon-to-be ex-wife, an aspiring photographer, was not self-supporting. Sales of her work could not be counted upon even for the rent of her studio. Her lover, with whom she had so recently taken up, a dyslexic personal trainer ten years her junior, worked only part time at a gym in Sausalito, and there would be little in the way of financial support from that quarter. Her attorney had already acquired a writ from a judge. Chance would be paying for both attorneys, his and hers. The house would be going on the market in the worst of markets. His daughter’s much beloved private school with its Monterey pines and views of the bay was appearing less likely by the day. The public school nearest their current home was the stuff of nightmare.
As for Ms. Franko in this time of drought and ash—the skies were so often thick with it of late, the result of fires sparked by some mishap in the Richmond refinery east of the bay, complicated by the unseasonable weather and dry, accompanying winds—she lived with her eighty-nine-year-old paternal grandmother in an apartment building on the south end of Palo Alto. At one point in his evaluation he had inquired as to how her grandmother had responded to the death of her only son. Mariella had said that her grandmother was very sad. She said her grandmother took medication on a daily basis but did not recall its name. She did not know if the older woman shared any of her recurring nightmares or intrusive recollections of the event that had claimed the life of their father and son.
Oddly enough it was Chance who had experienced a number of recurring nightmares together with intrusive memories and vivid recollections of the photographs he’d been asked to look at and these accompanied by the image of this shy and diminutive creature, alone in those still-dark hours, inquiring of the now speechless effigy at her side. Off this, he would move to imagining her out there in the apartment in Palo Alto, alone in some no doubt terminally banal setting, attempting to “distract herself by watching television.” What would she watch? he wondered. What could she possibly find that would not lead to the gouging out of one’s own eyes? The image suggested Lear and unaccommodated man, the thing itself. Job at least had God in the whirlwind. Mariella got police procedurals and vampire bloodletting. And that was just the news. He seemed to recall that she worked full time as a packager for Granny Goose potato chips in San Jose and that prior to the accident her interests had included painting, drawing, and collecting small statues of frogs.
There came a night, alone in his new apartment, half in the bag, he had actually gone so far as to imagine his driving the forty-five minutes it might take to reach her. She was not unattractive. In his report, he had described her as follows:
A petite 39-year-old woman of Italian descent with black hair that is pulled back tightly into a bun. She has straight, almost classical, features and large brown eyes. Her fingers are well manicured and she wears no nail polish. She wears a leather coat over a tan pin-striped suit and brown leather high-heeled lace-up boots. Her general manner, while pleasant, is marked by a total absence of spontaneity. The interview proceeded in a series of questions followed by unelaborated answers.
What he had thought but not recorded, what set her apart from so many of the others, was that she had about her some aspect of the caged bird, of a life un-lived. And it was just that, he thought, the horror of the life un-lived, that had found him out, in the midst of his own decline, wherein each day seemed at risk of being even more dimly lit than the one before it.
He held to the belief, possibly illusory, that there are times in a person’s life, moments really, when the right word or motion, when a single touch might wound or heal. It was to this end that he imagined the drive. It was not about some sexual conquest. He might just as easily have enlisted the aid of another had another arrived. It was the striking through that he envisioned, the freeing of the caged heart. He knew better, of course. He could see all of this for what it was, the half-mad quixotic gesture better dreamt than executed because well . . . because that was what life was like in the end. It was an image in a glass darkly. It was all just half lived. There would be no drives and no interventions. The workings of the world would not permit them. In lieu of these he opted for additional wine. But my God, he thought a moment later, refilling a glass, imagining for the simple sake of imagining it, his arriving unannounced upon her doorstep, what would she think? He heard the night made horrible with her screams.
He dozed thinking of Blake: “Every night and every morn / Some to misery are born. . . . Every morn and every night / Some are born to sweet delight. / Some are born to sweet delight, / Some are born to endless night.” He woke later in the still dark to the waves of Ocean Beach through the walls of his room. Rising, he was treated by way of a bathroom window to a strange orange light upon the eastern sky—what he was willing to take as evidence that in the hills above the Richmond oil refinery, the fires continued to rage.
Meet the Author
Kem Nunn is a third-generation Californian whose previous novels include The Dogs of Winter, Pomona Queen, Unassigned Territory, and Tapping the Source, which was made in to the film Point Break. Tijuana Straits won the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He lives in Southern California, where he also writes screenplays for television and film.
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4.5 stars (but rounded down because Chance was not quite a 5 star read for me) At first, I was a little put off by Chance's tone of voice; he seemed very dry and clinical, too distant for me to empathize with. I soon realized, however, how brilliant Nunn's choice was; the juxtaposition of this cool, self-analyzing voice with Chance's poor decisions made those decisions really stand out: "If one was looking for a level head in the midst of catastrophic decline, then Carl Allan was hardly your man. What the brief visit produced were complementary forms of paranoid ideation lapping up against one another like wavelets on a stony shore, each feeding off the intensity of the other." The author note at the end of Chance states that Nunn is both a novelist and a screenwriter and that he has written episodes of Sons of Anarchy, a show I enjoy and which contains similar ambiguities regarding the characters' motivations. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a sophisticated psychological thriller. I received a free copy of Chance through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The page before the first page by Ken Nunn contains a definition of the word “chance,” which concludes with the sentence “Sometimes granted agency, as in Chance governs all.” “Chance” is also the name of the protagonist, one Eldon J. Chance, MD, Associate Clinical Professor, Dept. of Psychiatry at UCSF Medical School. He is a forensic neuropsychiatrist (a new term for this reader) whose primary source of income these days is as an expert witness at or in preparation for trials. “He rarely saw someone more than once or twice and rarely worked with them as patients.” Now, separated from his wife after 20 years of marriage and with “his personal and financial life in such total and utter disarray,” despite always before being “a believer in caution,” he has found himself becoming fixated on first one, then another, of those patients. The latter of these is also the more fraught with complications and potential danger, both psychic and physical, Jaclyn Blackstone, a 36-year-old woman living in Berkeley thought to suffer from apparent “dissociative identity personality disorder. About 50 pages in, the tale morphs into something much more sinister. The problem arises from the fact that Jaclyn’s husband is not only violent and possessive, but is also a cop. Chance finds himself “half in love with an impossible woman, a potentially malignant blip on another man’s radar.” Chance believes that “[l]ike Houdini, we construct the machinery of our entrapment from which we must finally escape or die.” And he certainly does that. He is aided by a totally unique character, a seemingly deranged loner who makes it his current life’s work to assist Chance in extricating himself from either his relationship with Jaclyn, or at least, one way or another, from its more dangerous aspects. His characters are very well-drawn, and the plot engrossing. (And his appreciation for Chet Baker and Charlie Parker is certainly a plus.) Though generally well written, I found some of the writing to be less “smooth” (for lack of a better term) than the rest, and therefore a bit uneven. That said, “Chance” is certainly interesting, and it is recommended.
If the bar is a psychological thriller pace, then CHANCE didn’t measure up. It moved at a slow, leisurely pace instead of an all-out race. The vocabulary and sentence structure weighed in with a bit more heft than one might expect from your typical thriller, but I still felt shortchanged in the end. I had higher hopes for this tale, but I ended up facing the firing squad of disappointment with my head lowered and my hands held high. Jackie Black proved a bit more intriguing as a character than the prim and proper Jaclyn Blackstone, and Dr. Eldon Chance certainly had more than a few issues to work through. And there were other characters with issues to spare, leading the charge of disparity and marching out of step. Which did up the interest but I still managed to end up less than fully engaged. What made me shift a little more to the left was the forgettable nature of this troublesome tale. Nothing really stood out for me. Instead of being twisted in knots, I found myself sorely lacking in the suspense department, and maybe I didn’t know about the bomb underneath the table that was about to go off, or the detective with the threats that seemed a little less demanding than I would have preferred. Either way, I ended the tale somewhat impressed with the writing but feeling as though the story lacked more than a few thrills. I received this book for free through NetGalley. Robert Downs Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator
Soon to be a new television series starring Hugh Laurie! Read my full book review and look at the upcoming show here: http://everythingnoir.com/2016/02/14/book-review-chance-by-kem-nunn/
Ill save him!