Monday, August 14, 2006

Jeff Abbott's 'Fear' : Trauma Drama

Jeff Abbott's 'Fear'

By Edward Nawotka
Sunday, August 13, 2006

As a rule, when an author opts for a one-word title, you can be confident he's gunning for the commercial big time. Think of "Frankenstein," "Dracula," "Shogun," "Jaws." Single letter titles, such as "V," "G" and "Z," are strictly reserved for the highbrow stuff.

Last year, Austin writer Jeff Abbott, the author of seven paperbacks, had his first hardcover published. Appropriately, he went with a one-word title: "Panic," etched in ruby red type against a white background, as if a killer had painted the book in blood. A thriller about Evan Casher, a twentysomething documentary filmmaker who gets embroiled in a web of espionage and murder that stretches from Texas to London, it was intended as Abbott's breakthrough book. Mission accomplished: "Panic" has been optioned by The Weinstein Co. movie studio, with a screenwriter and director attached.

Abbott's latest one-word-title novel, "Fear," is the tale of Miles Kendrick, a mob lackey turned state's witness who is hiding out in Santa Fe, N.M., as part of a federal witness protection program. Miles is in therapy to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder he's suffered since gunning down his best friend during an FBI takedown gone wrong. When his therapist is killed in an explosion, a variety of thugs descend on picturesque Santa Fe in search of some secret computer files. Soon, Miles begins piecing together the story, which involves secret experiments that are being performed on people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He eventually hooks up with a "Survivor"-type reality show winner and an Iraq war veteran to foil this plot, and Abbott puts the action into overdrive, sending his characters on a road trip to Yosemite, where he stages a memorable chase scene.

Fans of Abbott's earlier books — four novels featuring Jordan Poteet, a librarian-cum-detective in a small Texas town, and a second series focused on Whit Mosley, a judge in a crime-ridden Gulf coast town — might be disconcerted by his transformation into a retailer of guns-ablazing thrills. But authors have every right to try new things — to leave behind the security blanket of established characters, to draw in new readers, to court Hollywood with some bang-bang-bang.

Unfortunately, Abbott's big jump has fallen a little short: "Panic" amounted to little more than one long chase scene. This isn't entirely a criticism; Abbott writes great chase scenes and the book's big set piece, a running gun-battle through New Orleans' Audubon Park, was especially well-done. What the book lacked was the sense of something serious at stake.

The major plot point in "Panic" involved encrypted computer files, which are sort of abstract, no matter what data they contain. And the book's villains were named Dezz and Jargos, which made them sound like European soccer hooligans. It was all a bit breathless and, ultimately, pointless. (The shocking surprise that is revealed at the end seemed more apt for an episode of "Alias" than a hardcover thriller.)

"Fear," once again, revolves around missing computer files and once again gives the bad guys European-sounding surnames — Groote, Quantrill and Sorenson. (The good guys — Allison, Celeste and Nathan — are all American.)

This time around, at least, there's something real at stake: Given the many damaged veterans who are returning to the U.S. from Iraq, the focus on post-traumatic stress disorder lends the book an air of timeliness. "Fear" doesn't offer as sophisticated a reflection of a contemporary, verifiable reality as, say, Dan Fesperman's recent thriller "The Prisoner of Guantanamo," but it's more tethered to the here-and-now than "Panic." Abbott has done his research and is especially edifying about the stress hormones, neurotransmitters and beta-receptors — collectively described by one doctor as "fear juice" — that enhance a traumatic memory and burn it into various regions of the brain.

That said, Abbott's readers had better prepare for a bit of trauma themselves. In "Fear," Abbott has dramatically amplified the level of violence. There are a half-dozen perfunctory scenes in which a minor character, often introduced as a false deus ex machina, is dispatched by an unceremonious double-tap between his or her astonished eyes.

Abbott also serves up a generous helping of gratuitous bloodshed and carnage, including multiple scenes of torture (one especially gruesome form involves running the tip of a screwdriver along exposed bone), as well as multiple face-bashing and razor-slashing fights.

Just this week the Journal of the American Medical Association published a report describing the neuropsychological effects of fighting in Iraq. It concluded that months of living with heightened adrenaline left soldiers struggling to focus and suffering subtle lapses in memory.

"Fear" has a similar effect: It might leave you temporarily juiced, but you won't remember much about it.

Texas writer Edward Nawotka covers the South for Publishers Weekly and is a nationally syndicated book critic.