By Philip Caputo
HarperCollins. 488 pp. $25

Go to the First Chapter of Equation for Evil

Go to Chapter One

The Massacre and the Mastermind

By Richard Bausch
Sunday, March 17, 1996

On the surface, Philip Caputo's new novel is about the aftermath of a violent act -- the worst of violent acts: an assault on children. But Equation for Evil is really about much more than that.

On a bright day in April, a lone gunman named Duane Boggs ambushes a school bus full of children headed for an outing in rural California. He murders the bus driver and then kills 14 children, most of them Asian, before turning the gun on himself. The public outcry that results from the massacre brings together two men, Leander Heartwood, a forensic psychiatrist, and Gabriel Chin, a police detective, who are asked to investigate the crime, to perform a "psychiatric autopsy" on the killer, and to try to establish a motive. As they seek to uncover the "Equation for Evil," their search takes them through the racism and mental distortions of the killer's daily existence -- his affiliation with white supremacy groups, his squalid life as a misfit, loner and drug abuser -- and eventually leads them to Mace Weathers, a well-spoken college student with a kind of surface charm and all the emotional depth of a clock.

With the discovery of the possibility of a silent accomplice -- someone who might have put Duane Boggs up to it all -- Weathers becomes the focus of the investigation, and Caputo takes an audacious risk by delivering several important scenes through Weathers's point of view -- where we can feel the essential chill of his being, the clockwork interior of the man. "Mace walked briskly to the bus stop, resisting the compulsion to count cracks in the sidewalk. No time to waste . . . He'd felt a little godlike. He alone knew the secrets . . . he alone was the keeper of the mysteries."

The investigation makes a very compelling story, with all the elements of a good murder mystery, but, more important, it provides Caputo with the opportunity to paint a very clear and lucid picture of the horrors we have come to in this country, the rampant ethnic hatreds and the avalanche of vulgarity and cruelty that overwhelms our daily lives. He renders his story with an attitude -- the stance, one might be tempted to say, of a good journalist reporting from the front.

Here, he describes the reaction of people after the killings have taken place, and television crews have arrived: "The people of the neighborhood knew that the spectacle unfolding before them was a necessary, almost a sacred, ritual that must not be interfered with in any way. This ritual was called coverage . . . If they had been Americans of their grandparents' generation, they would have sought out priests and ministers . . . The people of the neighborhood turned on their televisions . . . Their televisions made the alien familiar through the familiar ceremonies of coverage."

One understands rather quickly that this book is not going to stop at the appetite for violence or the ghoulish portrayal of it. Caputo begins by giving us a glimpse of the killer on the morning of the crime. "Today was different. His feelings on this, his life's last morning, were those of a convict on the day of his release . . . If everything went according to plan he'd be free and gone before the evening news, and the whole world would know it because he was going to be on the evening news."

We move from the killer to one of the soon-to-be victims, a teacher named Joyce Deluca, who gets wounded during the massacre and whose bright, forward-thinking character is forever altered by the trauma. The actual crime is dealt with quickly, in the blur of what Deluca can see or hear. And then, shifting points of view adeptly from Deluca to Chin to Heartwood, to Weathers and back, Caputo gives us what amounts to an extensive study not just of the particular crime, monstrous as it is, but of a whole society gone very badly awry. He paints vivid pictures of the sordid underside of American life, contrasts them with elaborate delineations of the California landscape. Everything in this America contributes to the violence that threatens to engulf it.

Caputo, author of A Rumor of War and Indian Country, lets no one and nothing off the hook. Each sentence, each line of thought and narrative contributes to the sorrowing sense of developing catastrophe in a society "so obsessed with fame" that it has made a "shrine of the mansion where the drug-addicted king of rock and roll died of a stroke while moving his bowels." Observations like this, wedded to a strong story with fully realized, interesting characters, in a prose as controlled and direct as a stare, make Equation for Evil the fine novel it is.

Richard Bausch's most recent book is "The Selected Stones." He is Heritage Professor of Writing at George Mason University.

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

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