Ambition and seriousness haven’t guaranteed successful novels, though. To date his literary output has included “Holy Cow” (2015), a slight yarn about a cow that roams off its homestead; “Bucky F*cking Dent” (2016), a modest father-son bonding tale framed around the 1978 World Series and “Miss Subways” (2018), a high-concept romance inspired (and overwhelmed) by Duchovny’s fascination with Irish folklore. He’s still working out his identity as a writer, and thus far that identity has been well-intentioned celeb turned author who hasn’t embarrassed himself.
“Truly Like Lightning,” his fourth novel, is another left turn: a stab at a hefty, Tom Wolfe-style social novel that wrestles with big themes. But his most complex novel is also the best of the batch, and makes a solid case for him as a real-deal novelist. It’s a provocative, entertaining book that, much like Wolfe did, exposes our collective foibles and makes everybody look a little cartoonish. But it persuades you that we deserve the caricature he’s made of us.
The plot is straightforward worlds-in-collision material. Bronson (tellingly nicknamed “Bro”) is a middle-aged retired stuntman who’s abandoned Hollywood and its attendant addictions to move to the desert near Joshua Tree. There, he’s inherited a swath of land from his grandmother, whose sole request was that he convert to Mormonism. Seduced by the faith’s outsider-ish, independent spirit, he adopts an originalist interpretation of the religion. In due time Bronson is living an unplugged life with two wives and 10 children. “He was that most dangerous man,” Duchovny writes, “an originalist and a true believer.”
Literally crashing into Bronson’s singular homestead is Maya, a mid-level functionary at an LA investment firm. She smashes a car on his property during a druggy weekend with her colleagues, but she’s sober enough to see the potential riches in Bronson’s property. And she spots a certain seductiveness in Bronson’s back-to-the-land spirituality. It’s a socioeconomic-psychopharmacological-religious meet-cute.
Bronson’s off-the grid lifestyle (home schooling, unpaid taxes, polygamy) makes him legally vulnerable, but Maya wants her company, not the government, to claim the land. So the two sides work out a wager: Three of Bronson’s kids will enter Southern California schools, and if they thrive Maya’s firm won’t attempt to build casinos and strip malls on the land. It’s a hokey setup, but Duchovny is spiritedly determined to work through the various permutations of this man-and-Mammon tale. Maya is hubris in high heels, certain that money subsidizes integrity: “Once she had power and some security and eyes on her, then she would lean in, make a turn to the good, to charity and conservation. Like Bill Gates. Like a reverse Koch bro.” And Bronson is sure his hardcore Mormonism is shield enough: “I believe all or I believe nothing. And if I believe nothing, I am nothing. I swallow it whole.”
Of course, this all speedily goes sideways. Bronson’s demure daughter Pearl transforms into a high school belle, landing the role of Maria in the class production of “West Side Story.” His son Deuce attempts to establish a union at the burger joint where he works. And his tweenage son Hyrum, a feral kid in the desert, finds that city living intensifies a resentment and fury that sets some third-act cataclysms in motion. One of Bronson’s sister-wives hits the Adderall. Maya and Bronson begin a flirtation. Jealousies abound.
Because the three kids are “desert tabula rasa,” each of them serve as opportunities for Duchovny to riff on some element of American life: racism, moralized ideas about sex and fidelity, drugs, and — how could he resist? — Hollywood. (In an amusing subplot, Maya is assigned to sift through a library of ’50s B-movie schlock for potentially lucrative reboots.)
Money and faith, though, are Duchovny’s chief obsessions. Conformity with the system, for Bronson, is a form of spiritual death that leaves you “unsaved, unforgiven, damned.” But religion, too, is a kind of banishment. Various characters ping-pong between the secular and the spiritual, stoked either by moral certainty or quick fixes: “It’s like you use God when you need him and psychology when you don’t,” as one of Bronson’s sister-wives tells another.
Duchovny doesn’t do much more than raise questions about these issues as the story speeds to its fittingly biblical climax. (“Does being able to kill for an idea make that idea true? ... Does dying for an idea make that idea worth dying for?”) But Duchovny earns the wide canvas he’s stretched. He has a cinematic understanding of how to keep his characters in motion and conflict, and Bronson’s undiluted Mormonism gives Duchovny a metaphor for American reinvention. We all want a creed that “sought relief from the crushing weight of the past, the old stories, and a willingness to embrace the new — new gods, new peoples and heroes, new stories.”
Good for Duchovny. He’s not playacting at fiction. But “Truly Like Lightning” also reveals a celebrity’s privilege: He’s had the opportunity to develop his voice across three novels before writing one that resonates, more leeway than what’s now afforded most emerging writers, who have to take off like a rocket or be all but banished. We could use more David Duchovny novels: funny, big-picture, irreverent. We could also use a literary culture that nurtures more writers the way it has Duchovny.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
This review has been updated.
Truly Like Lightning
By David Duchovny
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 464 pp. $28