CRUISERS

By Craig Nova

Shaye Arehart. 306 pp. $24

Cruisers, Craig Nova's 11th novel, provides a conclusive demonstration of the old adage that it ain't hot'cha do, it's the way hot'cha do it. Nova's basic story, which draws on an actual case, concerns two men, a Vermont state trooper and a psychologically damaged computer repairman, who move gradually but inexorably toward a violent confrontation. Nova tells their stories in parallel alternating chapters soaked in a bleak, updated noir atmosphere and, while letting the tension build to a thriller-like assault on the reader's peace of mind, never overplays his hand in any of the customary thrillerish ways. To the end, this novel remains subtle, understated and humane.

Vastly to his credit, Nova avoids both sets of cliches surrounding dual narratives, that unambiguous sunshine opposes utter darkness or that the antagonists are virtual doppelgangers separated primarily by their degree of impulse control. He blasts apart this simple kind of pattern-making by those greatest of all cliche-destroyers, the intelligence of his characterizations and the sheer, unforced eloquence of his prose. And along with the connection provided by the trooper, Russell Boyd, and the loose cannon, Frank Kohler, both of whom are experiencing difficulties with the women in their lives, Nova considerably raises the stakes by endowing the pair with convincing and utterly contrasting ways of experiencing the unknown.

We know we are in for something out of the ordinary from the very beginning, when Russell Boyd comes home from a night in his cruiser and lies awake recalling a self-consciously harrowing story told him in his boyhood by his grandfather, "a small-town lawyer who took pride in telling the truth as nearly as he could, and was never surprised by the difficulties people in town brought to his law office." For the grandfather, the virtues inherent in truth-telling and the inability to be surprised derive from the clear-eyed knowledge of "essential horror" he acquired in a German prison camp at the end of the war, when a pair of starving Russian soldiers wearily shot an escaping German guard, stripped him of his uniform, built a fire, cut up the corpse "with a quiet, methodical air," cooked it and ate it. They wandered off, "discarding a bone," as blank, featureless and implacable as Faulkner's rural madmen.

The entire book is encapsulated in this anecdote, and it provides us with the key to Boyd's character. The world is "tawdry, brutal, and yet indifferent," and also extremely dangerous, and there's nothing you can do about it, apart from trying to respect both the vast indifference of the cosmos and the vivid tenderness found in natural and human details. For Boyd, "horror was everything that beguiled and injured, that was tawdry and remorseless, without concern for consequences, as though the future had been banished by vanity and ill will." Enter Frank Kohler, the walking embodiment of Nova's epigraph from Jung, "Whatever is not conscious will be experienced as fate." As a child, Kohler saw the dismembered body of his mother in a trunk discarded on a river bank, and the accumulating after-effects of that moment are driving him, unknowing, to his death. Understanding that what he is doing is foolish, he orders a Russian mail-order bride. Once Katrina Kolymov arrives, Kohler moves, helplessly, eyes wide open, step by step toward catastrophe. The central triumph of Cruisers is the inevitability of Kohler's descent from incoherent yearning into bloodshed, and the way in which that sense of destiny at work not only keeps us from condemning him but also evokes a sympathetic dread.

Nova never diminishes his psychological insights by making them explicit. Carrying his Russian bride's bags across the airport parking lot, Kohler notices the multicolored light cast by shards of broken glass and nearly comes unglued. "As the fragments of light pierced him, each one at once festive and thoroughly mysterious, he was aware of that maddening, gentle, and yet universal presence which he had so often felt without warning recently. It was the hint of power that got to him, as though there was a love so inexhaustible that he would find himself weeping uncontrollably at the least sign of it." They stop at a Burger King on the way home, and an almost identical sight makes him feel as though he is "listening to choral music sung in a monastery." Tenderness, bright colors, sudden shafts of beauty, all these remind him of what he hasn't got, and his ignorance of the sources of his own (often beautiful) emotions arouses such incoherence and impatience in him that he seeks only "a moment of clarity, which he anticipated as golden heat and super brilliance, more platinum than gold, but whatever it was, it would be bright, clean, and filled with something knowable." Cruisers demonstrates that the boundary between literature and genre fiction, once fiercely maintained, has grown tissue-thin. *

Peter Straub is the author of seventeen novels, most recently "lost boy lost girl."