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Helter Swelter 

Blood, sand and the first temptation of Boston Teran

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Art by Paul Lee

GOD IS A BULLET | By BOSTON TERAN | Alfred A. Knopf | 306 pages | $24 hardcover

The scenario that developed around the publication of Boston Teran’s God Is a Bullet a month ago rings like some kind of kinky hoax. But it’s not. I hope.

I pray it’s not just hype, because I enjoy thinking we live in a world where the mule can still kick the muleskinner in the head. Where a guy over 40 can get a big publisher to cut him a half-mil advance for his first novel. Where that novel bucks ’90s pop-culture nihilism to excavate the building blocks of American morality. Where the author’s diction tries to forge a fresh way of seeing. And where the author himself actively resists the shrink-wrapping of his soul.

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On its surface, God Is a Bullet is no more than a pulp potboiler, with a story no less improbable than any: A square male cop and a recovering female junkie with the unsubtle signifiers "Bob Hightower" and "Case Hardin" team up to beat the brush of the Southwest desert in search of the cop’s daughter, who’s been snatched by a satanic gang led by a maniac with the pre-Christian appellation of Cyrus. In scene after scene of page-turning jump cuts, bathed in geysers of blood, the flawed but appealing protagonists are forced to re-evaluate themselves and most everything they used to hold true. The book is neither an old-fashioned hero-villain mat-slammer nor an action-über-alles video game; while keeping the entertainment level in the red zone, Teran just invites the reader to consider whether even the most extreme personal philosophy isn’t in some way preferable to the unexamined life.

And the invitation is commandingly packaged. Knowing you need your armor punctured, Teran fires away until you really feel his story. Throughout his in-your-socks present-tense narrative, Teran’s language is obsessively musical and novel: You hear not the crackle but the "gravel of gunfire"; you see "a tooth cracked like a cheap cup." His insights are often resonant: A cop fields questions with the kind of assurance that "comes from a lifetime of honesty or years of successful lying."

With all this stacked in Teran’s favor, maybe it’s not so surprising that — before it even hit the shelves, the author says — unauthorized copies of Bullet were widely circulated from hand to hand, that a New York Post columnist was juicing it, and that movie offers were tumbling in. But some things about the book’s liftoff just didn’t seem to jibe. In a time when the idealistic upheavals of the ’60s are viewed with embarrassment, why would readers so readily embrace a work riddled with references to Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones? Having written a book so visual, with screenplaylike narration and characters whose vague physical descriptions lend them to broad options in casting, why would Teran act surprised at rumors that he used to be a screenwriter? Why would his Acknowledgments refer to "my friends who are still in hiding"? Why would he conceal his past and refuse to be photographed? Did "Boston Teran" exist at all?

A man answering to that name (and offering to show his driver’s license) is nice enough to talk to me 45 minutes north of Hollywood, in a roadhouse bar in the foothill community of Saugus, where he’s researching an idea for another book. He’s tall and trim, wearing what looks like a vintage casual shirt; his salon-cut hair is a little gray. He speaks in a softly insistent voice that, though he’s lived in California 30 years, betrays traces of his native Bronx. Kind eyes and a substantial brush of mustache are the only features that might draw suspicious glances in a Century City boardroom.

So, Mr. T, what’s the hubbub about?

"A lot of people have called about the book since day one. Things just happened in a fashion that, believe me, you would be lucky if you could do it intentionally. Film reps and scouts and companies and all sorts of foreign-rights people make copies and send them to their nephews and cousins, and pretty soon you’ve got people all over the planet with it.

"This is all very fascinating to me, and bizarre. People want to know about every aspect of your life. The book is out a week, and it’s: Was I in a cult, was I a drug addict? Let’s interpret everything about a person’s life, against the work. But then everything is a reflection of a bio. I’m not sure it’s a good process. Let the work stand or fall, good or bad."

Teran insists that his writing method renders his biography irrelevant. "Void your ego," he tells himself, "and try to write from the perspective of what you’re writing, and try to live that out. Can you write from the perspective of the character who’s a Satanist, or a Christian, or an atheist? If you can’t do that, you’re not serving the purpose."

It’s actually a compliment to Teran that people think he must have lived the scenes he writes. But he says a lot of his fiction is pure imagination, with a substantial dose of hard research. "I will drive over and over a piece of ground until I’ve taken notes on 20 or 30 things. Or I carry a camera and take photographs of details."

Though Teran feels that movies have influenced the way people perceive things, and he takes that into account when he’s writing, he’s worried he might not be happy with a cinematic version, and he’s not fixated on the form: "I’d rather watch a good basketball game."

The characters? "I try to just say, ‘Are they human? Can you feel them?’ If you can do that, you can feel the drama."

As for the risk — as he sees it — of becoming a celebrity, a character in his own life, he’s serious about trying to avoid being turned into a burger chain. "I’ve lived a lot of lives, and I’ve had my own struggles, but at the end of the day I always start from one premise: emotional wholeness. If my writing career got too crazy, I would stop and move on. I would go back into the country, move to a small town and go by the name of Joe Smith, and start again with something else. It would be quite all right."

And how did he come to inspire all this brou haha, anyway? "Maybe because I’m just not trying to do it."

Teran is trying to do something, though, and for most of the book he succeeds. He has written a bloody thriller that displays literary ambitions beyond its caste — a tradition that goes back through James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and many others. And Bullet is more evidence that the caste system is obsolete.

Not that by some miracle he’s conjured a masterpiece out of his first pass. The relentless wordsmithing can be exhausting. (Don’t worry, though, you’ll quickly start to dig it, except in portions of the dialogue, where it’s hard to imagine a reader who wouldn’t be annoyed by a character depositing lines like "Memories, dreams. They strobe at you" or "Like the polish on a cheap pair of shoes, your modest charm has scuffed away to leave you as you really are.") A number of scenes clearly exist for no other reason than to let Teran ruminate on truth and myth. Aside from a few treasured moments like the one where Bob tumesces while beholding Case’s firearm expertise, humor turns up absent. Motivations and plot sometimes require more than the usual extreme suspension of disbelief required by fantasy fiction (of which, despite its excellent eye for real-life detail, Bullet is an example).

But even James Joyce could have used a stronger edit. And the real test of God Is a Bullet is Teran’s own: Are the characters human? Can you feel them? They are, and you can. Enough so that you might even feel a little sympathy for the devil.

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