Chaos Theory: A Novel

Chaos Theory: A Novel

by Gary Krist

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"Krist reminds us of how much fun reading can be."
The New York Times

Chaos Theory is a shrewd, literate, and compulsively readable thriller set against the background of Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s—a city on the brink of economic, social, and moral collapse.

Jason Rourke, who is white, and Dennis Monroe, who is black,


"Krist reminds us of how much fun reading can be."
The New York Times

Chaos Theory is a shrewd, literate, and compulsively readable thriller set against the background of Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s—a city on the brink of economic, social, and moral collapse.

Jason Rourke, who is white, and Dennis Monroe, who is black, are good kids and good friends. One night, on a dare, they drive to a blighted part of Washington to buy a little marijuana. But it isn't their night, and the deal goes terribly wrong. Before it's over, a shot is fired, and the two just barely get away, leaving a small-time drug dealer lying wounded in the street.

Their troubles are only beginning. The next morning, Jason and Dennis learn that the incident with the drug dealer was far worse than it seemed. Finding themselves suspects in a bizarre homicide, the two are forced to flee, leaving their families terrified and confused. And what started out as a relatively innocent moment of adolescent mischief soon turns into a nightmarish, life-threatening ordeal, one that eventually draws these sheltered teenagers into a citywide scheme of murders and cover-ups that may involve some of Washington's most prominent—and most trusted—public officials.

Gary Krist's first thriller, Bad Chemistry, was praised for its sharp intelligence and its deft and deep characterizations. Here he broadens his canvas, creating a drama that explores the thoughts and feelings of two families who suddenly find their lives spiraling out of control. The result is a sophisticated novel of suspense, one that takes us deep into the decay and corruption of a citytottering on the edge of chaos.

Editorial Reviews

Ann Prichard
Chaos Theroy combines corruption and kids dodging killers in a Grisham-like thriller that shares elements with The Client and The Street Lawyers but outshines both.
USA Today
Chicago Tribune
Suspenseful plot twists...will keep almost anybody turning the pages...stunning...riveting.
Jonathan Miles

There's precious little breathing room in Chaos Theory, Gary Krist's second thriller. The novel's breakneck action sequences -- foot chases, car chases, even dune-buggy chases -- tumble into one another like flotsam in a flood current, banging about in the froth. New dangers lurk at the bottom of every page, and there's nary a spot to be found for either reader or character to breathe a quiet sigh. It's a tight, dizzying if not altogether memorable read -- a swift and sleek whoosh of adrenaline for those nights when you don't give a damn what time the alarm is set for in the morning.

The title, of course, refers to the meteorologist Edward Lorenz's 1961 promulgation of what is commonly called the "butterfly effect": the theory that the flapping of a single butterfly's wing effects a divergence in the state of the atmosphere that, however minute, can ultimately produce a tornado in Kansas, say, or a monsoon in Indonesia.

In Krist's novel, the butterfly's flapping is a flip decision a pair of high school boys make on a chilly Sunday evening in Washington. The two of them -- one black, the other white and both clean-cut and levelheaded -- decide to score a joint downtown. The dealer who steps from an alleyway toward their car frightens them; he's jumpy and frazzled, not to mention armed with a small pistol. When the boys try to back out, the deal goes fully sour: A shot is fired, and in wrestling away the dealer's gun as their car drags him down the street the boys accidentally ram him, "with a sickening thud," into the back of a parked car.

At this juncture, however, the tornado hasn't even begun gaining speed. As it turns out, the dealer was an undercover cop, and it isn't long before other cops start sniffing out the black Audi with the hastily concealed bullet hole in the floorboards. But wait -- the undercover cop's picture on the nightly news doesn't match the face of the man the boys thudded into the parked car. Moreover, the cop, say the news reports, was shot -- and set on fire. Thus the tornado starts its swirl: With one minor act of recklessness, the two boys unwittingly unpeel a macabre and multi-faceted kidnapping and killing operation.

The action takes place circa Marion Barry's last mayoral term, when Washington had to be turned over to a federal control board, and in Krist's hands the tumultuous city, loosely fictionalized, plays a character itself -- a malevolent and malignant presence shambling about the story's corners. It's Fritz Lang's metropolis as described, perhaps, by Bruce Springsteen:

They continued north for a while longer, the streets turning shabbier and grimmer as they drove. They passed a weed-choked lot, the loading dock of a sheet-metal works, and then an abandoned gas station, the blackened, burned-out shells of its gas pumps lined up like headstones in a cemetery. This is the city you live in, Jason told himself.

Throughout the book, nonetheless, lie the skid marks of what could have been deeper treatments of character. Krist's cast is far more human than the genre's typical line-ups, and he makes brief if occasionally effective forays into topics like troubled father-son relationships, racial politics and friendship; but the pace rarely slows enough for any substantial mining of character.

Moreover, Krist's efforts are too often betrayed by sentences that fall thuddingly flat, like belly flops into a shallow pool. ("She would be trouble, of course -- this bone-thin, neurotic, chain-smoking, scotch-guzzling white woman. Maybe more trouble than he wanted right now.") But then, with the sentences flying by so quickly in a plot-throttled blur, you don't especially care -- it's a thriller and it's thrilling, a rocketing and relentless literary carnival ride.

Chaos Theory stirs up real terror.
USA Today
A Grisham-like thriller that shares elements with The Client and The Street Lawyer but outshines both.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Two middle-class Washington, DC, teenagers are only trying to score a little marijuana, but instead they get tangled up in an affair that leaves an undercover cop dead. And that's just the beginning. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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4.66(w) x 6.48(h) x 0.96(d)

Read an Excerpt

Dennis turned the Audi onto a dismal side street lined with peeling row houses. Almost all of the windows and doorways were boarded up with splintered, graffiti-slashed plywood. Three black men sat on a broken stoop, hunched against the unseasonable cold, each one facing in a different direction. Dennis slowed down. "It should be right around here," he said.

They turned another corner. This block was quieter, the buildings lower and windowless, more industrial. Jason felt a sizzle of anxiety in his stomach. He was like an astronaut, he thought suddenly--unmoored and weightless in space. "Shit, Dennis, I don't know about this. Who told you about this place?"

Dennis grinned, looking pleased by Jason's nervousness. "Relax," he said. "This is what it's all about, Jason. Grace under pressure. It'll be good discipline for you, trust me." He steered the Audi around a fallen trash can spilling bottles and grease-stained pizza boxes into the street. A few drops of rain spattered the windshield. They caught the light like tiny beads before Dennis turned on the wipers and smeared them into blurry arcs.

Then, just before they reached the end of the block, near a stop sign with its top half bent back in a perfect right angle, a figure came out of an alleyway and moved straight toward the curb. "Here we go," Dennis said.

It was a short Latino man with a heavy jaw, a thin mustache, and a gold hoop earring in the lobe of his left ear. He stepped toward the car, his hands deep in the pockets of a brown vinyl jacket. Jason closed his eyes for a second, bracing himself. He rolled down the window just as Dennis pulled up at the curb.

"This the deaf guy?" the man asked.He stooped to the open window on Jason's side. "Shit, look what we got here. This him?"

"Hey, man," Dennis said. "What's up?"

The man peered at Dennis, then at Jason, then back again. He seemed nervous and uncertain. "I asked you a question."

"You selling loose joints?" Jason blurted, wanting to get this over with.

There were little dots of sweat cobbling the man's broad face. "He don't talk like he's deaf. You guys fuckin' with me? Where's the deaf guy?"

"Sorry, there's no deaf guy, man." Dennis leaned across the gearshift. "We're just trying to conduct a little business with you."

The dealer slammed both hands against the car door. "I can't believe this shit. You're supposed to bring me the deaf guy. Did Arlene tell you to fuck with me?"

Dennis straightened up and started putting the Audi in gear. "Look, I guess we made a mistake."

"Hold on, hold on." The man cleared his throat and spat a gob of saliva onto the sidewalk. Then he reached behind his back and smoothly pulled a small pistol from the waistband of his jeans. "I got a point to make with you little ones," he said, chambering a round.

"Oh Jesus fuck," Jason whispered.

"Okay, take it easy, man," Dennis said slowly. "We didn't want anything like this. We just came to do a little business."

"I don't do no little business, you tell Arlene."

"We don't know any Arlene," Dennis said. "It's a mistake."

"A mistake?" The man started shaking the pistol at them. He seemed to be strung out on something, barely in control. "You think I got time to fuck with this? I should shoot the fuckin' cojones off both a you." The man reached into the car with his other hand and snatched the twenty from Jason's fingers. "This all the business we got together," he said. "Let's have the wallets now."

"Oh Christ," Dennis said. He shot a quick glance at Jason and started fumbling for his billfold.

"Get out the car first!" The man pushed the pistol toward Dennis. "Get out and come on over this side!"

Dennis started to go along, but Jason put his hand out to stop him. The man was mumbling to himself now, shivering and waving the pistol around. It was practically in front of Jason's face. He could see little pink scars on the knuckles, the fingernails milky and thick.

It was like a movie jumping a few frames in his head. Jason found himself reaching up and grabbing the dealer's wrist with both hands, then pulling down as hard as he could. The forearm smashed against the bottom of the window frame. He heard a distinct crack--like a dry stick snapped in two--but the gun didn't drop from the hand. "Go, Dennis!" Jason screamed. "Jesus, go!"

The arm was flailing around ridiculously now, like a big, struggling fish. Jason held on with all of his strength, trying to keep the pistol barrel aimed down and away from them. Suddenly, a yellow flame jumped from the barrel and a sharp explosion pummeled his ears. Jason felt stunned, numb. Dennis was speeding away now, but somehow Jason was still holding on to the dealer's arm. The car was dragging him along the curb. Then, with a sickening thud, the man's body collided with the back of a parked car. The arm tore itself out of Jason's grasp and clattered out the window. As Dennis accelerated away, Jason twisted around in his seat to look back. He saw the man slumped in the street beside the parked car, the pistol lying a few feet away from his misshapen outstretched arm. Jason stared--hoping to see the body move--until the Audi turned the corner and the scene was eclipsed by the edge of a brick warehouse.

They were moving fast down the empty street, lights whizzing by the windows. As they turned the next corner they almost hit a forest-green Explorer heading slowly across the intersection in the opposite direction, but Dennis swerved away from it in time. Jason could see a pale shocked face through the side window as they passed. He realized only then that Dennis was shouting at him: "You fucking imbecile! What the fuck was that? What do you call that?"

Jason couldn't answer. Dennis's voice sounded fuzzy and distant. Jason wondered if maybe he was deaf now, if the dealer was somehow right about that after all.

"Jason, say something," Dennis went on then, in a calmer voice. "Are you okay?"

Jason managed a nod. "I'm, yes. Okay."

Dennis pounded his fists against the steering wheel. "Don't you know that you're supposed to cooperate in a situation like that, Jason? Didn't they ever teach you that?"

"I was not getting out of this car." He looked over at Dennis. "The guy would've killed us. I had, like, a premonition."

"You had a premonition?"

Was that right? Was it a premonition that made him panic like that? "I thought he was going to kill us," Jason said. "I'm sorry."

"Talk about grace under pressure." Dennis dragged a hand across his forehead. "A premonition! You really are twisted, Jason."

They didn't say anything more for a few minutes. Dennis just kept driving west and south, easing through red lights and stop signs now, heading toward familiar downtown streets.

"We'll have to find where that slug went," Dennis said finally, when they'd put enough distance between themselves and the man lying in the street.

It was just past midnight when Dennis turned the Audi onto Jason's block, a quiet stretch of Dunhaven Street near Rock Creek Park. The bottle of wine was empty now--they'd poured the rest of it out while stopped at a red light--and Jason was feeling clearheaded and sober.

"God," Dennis said, driving slowly down the street. "I literally thought I'd piss myself when that shot went off."

Jason nodded. "You should have felt the kick in the guy's wrist. Like a jolt. Electroshock or something. Wild." He sniffed his hands. "I can still smell it," he said. The smell reminded him of the anemic Roman candles his father used to set off in the backyard when he was a kid.

"Wash your hands before you go to bed," Dennis said.

"Okay, Dad. And you spray the car with deodorizer when you get home. Maybe you can call QVC and order one of those pine trees that fat salesmen hang from their mirrors."

Dennis pulled up at the curb in front of Jason's house. He idled there for a few seconds as they both looked across the street at a gray cat skulking along a wall. "Seriously, Jase," he said. "This whole thing goes to the grave with us. I mean it." "Actually, I thought I'd bring it up with my dad at breakfast tomorrow."

Dennis turned his head sharply.

"Joke, joke," Jason droned. "Dildo." He got out of the car. There were tiny spring leaves on the branches of the trees overhead, like lace silhouetted against the yellowy streetlight. He came around to the driver's-side window. "I guess we never got our twenty dollars' worth of weed," he said quietly.

Dennis smiled. "Next time," he said. "Take it easy, asshole."

Jason gave the back bumper a little kick as the Audi moved away from the curb. He waited until the red brake lights flashed at the stop sign and the car finally disappeared around the corner.

He looked down at his hands. The guy was a drug dealer, he told himself for the fifth or sixth time in the last hour. The guy pulled a gun on them. He deserved to get the shit kicked out of him.

Jason looked up at his father's bedroom window. It was dark; the blinds were pulled. That was good. No explanations would be necessary, at least not until tomorrow morning. By then he could make up something convincing, if he had to. If he wanted to.

Feeling composed now, almost relaxed, Jason took a last breath of night air. It's over, he told himself. Then he started walking toward the yellow glow of his waiting front porch.

Dennis said he knew where to get some cocaine.

"Yeah, right," Jason answered. "I'll bet you do."

"I mean it, Jase. I'm a worldly kinda guy."

The laugh took Jason by surprise. Red wine shot up his nose, the sting drawing tears to his eyes. "God," he said, "don't tell me things like that when I'm mid-gulp." He wiped his eyes on his sleeve and then, settling back against the sticky leather seat of the car, held out the bottle for his friend.

"You don't believe me," Dennis said, waving the bottle away.

"It's not that I don't believe you, man. It's just that I know you."

"You don't know shit." Dennis shot him a mock scowl. "You ignorant. You just a ignorant white boy."

"Oh, right, right. The minute we get downtown, Mr. Harvard-bound starts talking like Snoop Doggy Dogg."

"You better watch yourself," Dennis went on. "I be one badass mandingo, don't you know that?"

"Oh yes, Dennis, I'm aware of that," Jason said. "You so badass you sometimes hand in your homework two days late."

"And you know what that can do to a homeboy's GPA."

"I do," Jason said, pounding the cork back into the bottle with his fist. "Badass mandingo. Please."

It was just after ten o'clock on a chilly Sunday night. Jason Rourke and Dennis Monroe, juniors at Robert F. Kennedy High School in northwest Washington, D.C., were sitting in the Monroes' black Audi, stopped at a red light near Union Station.

The moonlit city stretched out in front of them--like an offering, it seemed to Jason, an opportunity too good to pass up.

An hour earlier, they'd escaped from one of the more excruciating parties in recent memory--the sedate, alcohol-free birthday celebration of their classmate Melinda Parks, a tall, gorgeous, depressingly wholesome girl whose father was minister at a local Baptist church. It was a grisly scene from the very start, with the Reverend himself asking everyone to join hands for an opening prayer of thanksgiving. By the time ten o'clock rolled around and Melinda's mother began shepherding people toward the grand piano to sing "Happy Birthday," the two had reached their limit. "Let's disappear," Jason whispered to his friend, "before they start launching into Rodgers and Hammerstein." Dennis agreed, and the two of them sneaked out without a word to anyone. Jason produced the bottle of red wine, slipped secretly from his father's basement wine rack earlier that night, and opened it with the corkscrew on his Swiss Army knife. Then they got into the car, took a few long, sour chugs of wine, and just started driving, not knowing where they wanted to go but knowing that home was definitely not it.

"Anyway," Jason said now, as they waited for the light to turn green. "You ever really do cocaine? I mean honestly."

"Honestly?" Dennis looked straight at him for a few seconds, clearly considering a lie or a joke. He had dark, deep-set eyes, sharp cheekbones, and a sloping, wide-nostriled nose that gave him a weirdly exotic look--more Egyptian than black. Jason, with his messy wad of wiry brown hair and sallow cheeks, always felt a little too ordinary next to him. "Nope," Dennis said finally, shaking his head. "Never tried it."

"Me neither." Jason looked down at the wine in his hands.

The streetlights outside touched the curves of the bottle with vague Os of light. "I heard that Cory Donahue snorted something before the PSATs. In the boys' room right before the exam started."

Dennis looked interested. "How'd he end up doing?"

"Ninety-fifth percentile, dude. Better than you."

"Shit. Ninety-fifth percentile?"

"Math and Verbal. If he had your skin color, they'd be paying him to go to Harvard."

Dennis raised his eyebrows. "You're a racist, you know that, Jase?"

"Yeah, I know," he said. "And my cousin Julie in Canada tells me I'm an 'unreconstructed sexist.' What else is new?"

They drove past the pale, hulking facades of the House Office Buildings. The sidewalks were empty at this time on a Sunday night in March, but there were still a few lights on in the office buildings--congressmen, Jason figured, pretending to work late. At the next corner, Dennis stopped and turned east, and the streets changed almost immediately. The big government buildings were suddenly gone, giving way to long lines of tidy row houses on dark, narrower, tree-lined streets. After a few blocks, Dennis turned north again, and Jason glimpsed the stark white peak of the Capitol dome moving across an intersection, as vivid and incongruous as a UFO.

"Seriously speaking," Dennis said after a while, "now that we're heading this way, we probably could turn up a few joints. If we wanted."

Jason kept his eyes on the hovering white dome. The statue on top could have been a border guard, watching them from its tower.

"I know a promising street corner," Dennis added.

Jason didn't answer for a few seconds. He glanced over at his friend. Dennis was wearing his "preppy disguise," as he called it--blue button-down shirt, chinos, some bland oatmeal-colored jacket. Next to Jason, in his black leather jacket and ratty sneakers, Dennis didn't look like the one who would hear about the promising street corners. But Jason, for all his teasing, knew better.

Jason ran his fingers over the raised gold seal on the label of the wine bottle. He understood that this wouldn't be the same as buying from the bald Grenadian who hung around the high school grounds on weekends. They were heading into Northeast. "It would be one way of saving this night," he said uncertainly. "And I've got a spare twenty in my wallet."

"A twenty would do it. If we were so inclined."

The two friends locked eyes for a few seconds.

Dennis smiled. "Or would you rather go back to Melinda's party?"

That did it. "Like shit," Jason said finally. "Consider me so inclined."



Dennis took a slow breath. "Excellent," he said. "Then let's incline on over there."

They continued north past Stanton Park. Preparing himself, Jason corked the wine bottle more tightly and shoved it under the seat. He took the wallet out of his back pocket, removed the twenty, and then pocketed the wallet again. The bill was wrinkled, so he tried to press it smooth against his thigh.

"Don't get it all sweaty," Dennis said. "Dealers in these parts hate wet money." It wasn't even a joke, but Jason laughed anyway--a high-pitched, unnatural giggle that embarrassed him. Don't be a dick, he told himself firmly, pressing the bill harder against his thigh.

They continued north for a while longer, the streets turning shabbier and grimmer as they drove. They passed a weed-choked lot, the loading dock of a sheet-metal works, and then an abandoned gas station, the blackened, burned-out shells of its gas pumps lined up like headstones in a cemetery. This is the city you live in, Jason told himself.

Meet the Author

Gary Krist has written two New York Times Notable Books--a novel, Bad Chemistry, and a story collection, Bone by Bone--and The Garden State, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. A widely published journalist and critic, Krist lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with his wife and daughter.

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