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.