“Chance” by Kem Nunn (Scribner, 322 pages, $26)
Is it too much to compare Kem Nunn to Raymond Chandler? Both have used the loose frame of genre to write enduringly and resonantly about the dark side of the California dream. For Nunn, this has meant an exploration of boundaries, both actual and metaphorical; his last novel, “Tijuana Straits” (which won a 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize), traces the shifting landscape of the physical borderland.
At the same time, there is also a willingness to take risks, to play against expectation, which marks both Nunn’s fiction and his TV work on “John from Cincinnati” and now “Sons of Anarchy.” His writing has been characterized as “surf noir,” but really, that’s just a convenient placeholder, going back 30 years to “Tapping the Source,” in which a teenage boy’s search for his sister leads him to the unexpected fringes of a Southern California beach community.
Like Chandler, Nunn’s great subject is what lies beneath the surface, the desolation that infuses us at every turn. As Eldon Chance, the central character of his sixth novel, “Chance,” reflects, “What difference would any of it make when all was said and done? When entropy and darkness had had their way?”
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“Chance” is very much a book about entropy and darkness. It also takes its share of risks, beginning with the name of Nunn’s eponymous protagonist, a forensic neuropsychiatrist in San Francisco who “made the better part of his living explaining often complicated neurological conditions to juries and or attorneys.” Such a formulation can seem contrived, especially in a novel like this one, which is, at heart, about uncertainty.
“Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World – From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief” by Tom Zoellner (Viking, 384 pages, $27.95)
The routes American railroads follow were laid out almost exclusively in the 19th and 20th centuries, when trains were symbols of modernity and industrial power. And today, riding a train – especially in the United States – can feel like stepping into a time machine.
Tom Zoellner enters this time machine again and again in his highly entertaining, lucid and perceptive travelogue “Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World – From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.” It’s an account of Zoellner’s travels on six legendary rail lines, but it’s really much more than that: It’s a train lover’s celebration of the great epic story of rail travel itself.
“We live in a society that was made by the railroads in ways we never think about anymore,” writes Zoellner, a Chapman University professor and author of books on topics ranging from uranium to Gabrielle Giffords. We owe to railroads, he says, “our abstract notion of time and our sense of everyday connection with people who may live out of sight but are made neighbors through mechanical means. Under the skin of modernity lies a skeleton of railroad tracks.”