Chaos Theory

by Gary Krist

Published by Random House

347 pages, 2000

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Chaos Tamed

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


It's a reasonably safe bet that Gary Krist's Chaos Theory isn't on the recommended reading list of the Washington, D.C., visitor's bureau. Krist's D.C. is a sinister place. Rife, of course, with corruption, but also fairly oozing evil from every underfunded pore. In fact, it is festering and nasty enough that Krist seems to have thought it best to include a bit of a disclaimer in an author's note at the book's beginning:

The Washington, D.C., depicted in this book is fictional. Though it bears certain geographical, administrative, and atmospheric resemblances to the real capital city of the mid-1990s, it is a creation of the author's imagination.... The truths of fiction and those of journalism may overlap, but they are not identical.

Into this soup of idealism gone maniacally awry, Krist introduces two highly sympathetic characters. A couple of middle-class, 17-year-old high school students with college in their futures find themselves unwittingly and fairly innocently involved in a series of events beyond anything either of them could have imagined. Dennis -- who is black -- and Jason -- who is white -- are entirely typical of the best of their kind. Anyone who has ever been, dated or parented a teenage boy will recognize this pair. Excitable and engaging in the way of adolescent puppies, when they leave an especially boring party early in the book and cruise somewhat aimlessly in Dennis' mother's Audi, they're not really looking for anything as they drive north. It seems more out of boredom than desire that Dennis finally suggests, "now that we're heading this way, we probably could turn up a few joints. If we wanted."

It still seems more for the adventure than the drugs that the two cruise ever farther north. The view outside of the Audi's snug windows brings ugly messages:

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.

This reasonably innocent jaunt becomes a nightmare when the person they take for a drug dealer turns out to be a gun-waving lunatic. In a scuffle, the man fires a shot into the Audi while Dennis drives like mad and Jason struggles with the perpetrator through the passenger window. When they finally free themselves of him, the thug is left in the road behind them: perhaps even dead. And all by page 15.

Dennis and Jason's close call has left them shaken but not damaged. They go to school the next day and life gives every sign of continuing as usual, until a series of events leads them to believe that they've inadvertently become involved in something much larger than was at first apparent -- and much more serious than a run-in with a stoned drug dealer would have had them think.

Not knowing where else to go, they turn to their journalism teacher for advice. A former crime reporter, Renee Daniels left a D.C. metro daily after a serial rapist she was covering turned his attentions on her. Though the threat went no farther than a phone call, Renee was left mortally shaken and ultimately lost first her nerve and then her job. She's turned her attentions now to molding young reporters rather than exposing herself to that life.

Daniels is a good and likable character. In another genre, in fact, she'd be a character worth basing a series on. Forty-something, Renee smokes constantly and probably drinks too much, yet manages to remain slender and lovely.

Cigarettes and nerves, she knew, were the main factors in keeping her weight down. That, and an occasional tendency to let a bottle of cabernet suffice for dinner. The Daniels Diet, she called it. You might die young, but you won't die fat.

It is perhaps these very eccentricities that make her the perfect person for Dennis and Jason to bring their story to. She is flawed enough not to let the flaws of others cloud her judgment, and they are aware that her crime reporting days might offer contacts.

The contact Renee chooses is an old flame. Frank Laroux is the FBI agent Renee was in love with a decade before. However, Laroux broke off their relationship when his superiors let it be known that sleeping with a crime reporter wouldn't be good for his career. Now that he's risen quite a lot in the bureau and been through an unsuccessful marriage, Laroux seems anxious to take up with Renee where things left off. More importantly for the story, he agrees to talk to Dennis and Jason. Before that conversation can take place, however, the story begins to unfold rapidly in a couple of plot twists that make it difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys. We're always sure of Dennis, Jason and Renee, but once the reader knows that the police, various government officials and potentially everyone else is involved, you start doubting the ground beneath your feet. It's a good feeling, in fiction at any rate: the possibility that -- once again -- at any moment everything will be turned around and it'll look different than it did before. Chaos Theory is taut and sharply written and after a while you forget what the edge of your seat even feels like.

One of the things I enjoyed most was Krist's use of an unselfconscious multiracial cast of characters. The two young friends are black and white and their race plays only a very small part in the plot. They could just as easily both been one or the other or even Asian or Hispanic or... they are friends and their race is salient but secondary. Likewise, Renee Daniels is white and Frank Laroux is black. Their affair and friendship seems absolutely unaffected by this detail. It's refreshing to see people portraying people and not constantly weighted down by confusions that need affect individuals very little. Krist could have mixed this soup in any possible direction (Asian teacher, white FBI agent, black kids) and the result need not have been strikingly different.

There's a lot to like in this book. "Wild ride," sounds like such a cliché, but it works here. For the most part, the characters are strong and distinct and some of them are downright memorable. The plot is plausible and logical and strikingly unflawed: everything concludes in a satisfactory way. Though there are a couple of romantic elements, these aren't played too heavily and don't detract from the suspenseful nature of the book. And that's what Chaos Theory is: a muscular thriller with all of the bases covered. An enjoyable book from an author whose star is on the rise. | January 2000


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.