'God Is a Bullet': moral mayhem

April 18, 1999|By Ben Neihart | By Ben Neihart,Special to the Sun

"God Is a Bullet," by Boston Teran. Knopf. 306 pages. $24.

Book reviewers tend to act like parents, telling you who is worthy of your compassion, telling you which characters you are allowed to love. Like parents, reviewers often get things wrong, but I want you to listen to me: Case Hardin and Bob Hightower, the leads in Boston Teran's astounding first thriller, "God Is a Bullet," deserve every open-hearted reader's immediate respect and pity.

Let me say it again: these two are heroes.

Let me say it a third time: this is a brutal, terrifying, morally upsetting thriller about two mismatched partners who show bravery in circumstances so horrific that most folks -- and here I certainly include myself -- would physically and mentally disintegrate.

"God Is a Bullet" starts with one of the best-paced ambush scenes I've ever read -- and I have to admit that I almost wanted to stop reading then and there. A girl, Gabi, creeping through her own dark house, notices that the patio doors are slightly open.

She "is crossing the room to close the doors when something shape-shifts up behind her. She sees its alter-image lunge across the ceiling. She manages one scream. Just one, before her voice is swallowed by a huge hand. ... Her mother shouts her name as Gabi is lifted off the ground, kicking. ... Gabi claws at the hand over her mouth as her head is pulled around. She is face-to-face with gaunt eyes above cheeks branded in ink with lightning bolts that drip blood. There is another scream and a shotgun blast discharges and the whole house seems to echo and shake and reek with acrid smoke."

Gabi is kidnapped by Cyrus, the leader of a satanic cult. Her dad, a cop named Bob Hightower, has to join forces with Case Hardin, an ex-junkie ex-member of Cyrus' cult, to rescue Gabi. It's this partnership that drives scene after exhilarating scene -- makes you look around your own life and wonder which unlikely gal you could call on to watch your back if bullets started to fly.

And oh how the bullets fly, the knives cut and the fire burns in this book. It's not just the physical violence that's graphic; there is so much emotional abuse here that after a while you long for a tender moment -- even knowing that every soft interlude is only setting the stage for another ferocious set piece.

I don't know for sure if this book is exploitation. The language is so harsh and the violence is so relentless that I'm tempted to say yes. But isn't it better, when you're talking about sickening, perverted sadists, to leave your reader feeling a little bit sick? Is it moral to spare the reader the details, to make an aesthetic choice that lets the reader have "fun" with murder and mayhem, like those TV murder shows where there's never any blood?

"God Is a Bullet" is an extraordinary debut thriller -- swift, raw and genuinely scary. It made me feel awful, but if it hadn't, if this story had actually lifted my spirits -- now that would've been obscene.

Ben Neihart's first novel was "Hey, Joe." His second, "Burning Girl," has just been published by Rob Weisbach Books under William Morrow publishers.

Pub Date: 04/18/99

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