The Magazine

The Klavan File

A novelist of values in the Age of Terror.

Apr 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 30 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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Elsewhere the narrator makes clear that contemporary academic literary theory revolts him. Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," he declares, is "one of the wisest and most beautiful poems." How distressing, then, to encounter a graduate student who tells his colleagues that the poem is simply the "effulgence, or maybe I should say effluvium, of certain social interactions and assumptions." Summarizing the graduate student's argument, the narrator adds that "all these interactions and assumptions were sexist, imperialist, racist, and altogether very, very bad."

Not so long ago, the narrator muses, he too had been "talking nonsense just like [the graduate students] were. Planning, like they were, a career in the academy" by becoming "a college professor with writer's block trying to write novels about college professors with writer's block. . . . The usual drill."

He now realizes, though, that "these people had nothing to do with literature. They had nothing to do with ideas. They were just intellectual vandals, parading a cheap knack for breaking fine things into their component parts." Instead, the narrator decides to "live in the real world with real people and write the kind of novels I had always loved"--that is, "tough-guy books and mystery novels" celebrating the heroism of "detectives and cops and soldiers."

In another subplot the narrator uncovers an underground Christian group at Berkeley, expressing his amazement to one of the participants: "You're an intellectual. We [intellectuals] don't believe in God anymore." His interlocutor reminds him, though, that the beliefs that have replaced Christianity on campus--psychoanalysis, socialism, feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism--aren't particularly plausible, either:

I mean, people don't really have Oedipal complexes, not usually anyway, and labor doesn't actually produce capital. Women are born different from men, some cultures are better than others, and on and on. . . . The fact that all these deep convictions . . . turned out to be, you know, just false, made me wonder about the other thing, the God thing.

Since Klavan rightly aims for a readership transcending members of the National Association of Scholars and subscribers to First Things, this critique of the contemporary university emerges only from his books' subplots. By contrast, the major plots concern the sorts of villains whom you'd expect to encounter in crime novels, with Weiss and Bishop battling a frighteningly competent contract killer and the pathological leader of an outlaw biker gang.

Ultimately, though, the narrator manages--at least on a small scale--to embody the heroism that Weiss and Bishop display: the heroism admired by him and despised by the contemporary academy. When Weiss is in danger of being attacked by a group of lowlifes, the narrator must decide how to react:

How can one tell, I inquired philosophically, who is a mere reveler and who is a murderous thug come to beat the living daylights out of one's friend? This is how intellectuals stay out of fistfights. They convince themselves the situation is complex. It's much safer than acknowledging the simple right and wrong of the thing, the need for immediate action. It's safer, but it's not admirable.

So the narrator chooses to act courageously, and is himself beaten up by the lowlifes, as he successfully enables Weiss to escape from his attackers. A fair summary of the narrator's experience at Weiss Investigations is that it teaches him the need to affirm the significance of "the simple right and wrong of [a] thing."

Insisting on right and wrong was the moral basis of Klavan's Times piece. Dynamite Road, Shotgun Alley, and Damnation Street together offer a fictional account of the sources of that insistence.

Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.