Part-time Durango resident Paco Ahlgren has set part of his first novel,
Discipline , in Durango and Vallecito. But don't race out
to grab the book on that account. Place isn't one of the author's burning interests.
What he's interested in is the enlightenment of his characters and the steady page-turning of
his readers. Catching the eye of filmmakers may have crossed his mind, too. I imagine he's shooting for a "Matrix"
successor with cheaper special effects. His characters can catch bullets during fights, but they don't live in an
expensive futuristic city.
The book's a thriller and a coming-of-age story with metaphysical twists.
Douglas Cole, the protagonist, had a tough childhood. His mother is a negligent, drunken
hussy who dies of an overdose. His beloved father and young brother are killed in a car crash.
He's brought up by the first of his two mentors, Jack, a genial, unassuming guy who fixes
computers and tells fart jokes. Many fart jokes.
With Jack's help, Douglas makes it to the University of Texas in Austin. There he meets his
second mentor, Jefferson, and passes the time with drugs, day trading and more chess games than I've ever seen in a
novel. A reader has to be patient about fictional chess to enjoy this narrative.
Douglas goes broke, sends his lover running for cover, and nearly dies until his kindly
mentors, who now reveal their quasi-supernatural traits, save him.
Ahlgren knows how to keep the pace going most of the time, and the scenes in which Douglas first experiences his special traits are convincing. It can't be easy to write an account of bringing a dead moppet back to life without stretching readers' patience, but Ahlgren does it. Sadly, his mentors assure him that his ability to restore life is just a meaningless side show. What's important is to fight the baddy.
This tunnel vision points to the book's biggest failing. Ahlgren has straightjacketed his smart, sophisticated novel with a plot that could be described as The Thrilling Three Fight a Really Bad Guy. I fear Ahlgren read a book about how to write a blockbuster by confining the plot to simple fighting.
But there are many pleasures to compensate. Ahlgren is well-read and includes a bibliography, a touch that would make many a novel more fun. Sadly, that bibliography includes Ayn Rand, but it also brings in Warren Buffet, Taoism and quantum mechanics.
These are among Ahlgren's enthusiasms, and he inserts them into the book adroitly. Tao is one mechanism the Thrilling Three use to evolve, along with a few parallel universes to round out the cosmology. Ahlgren also supplies a beginners' guide to quantum mechanics, which is an entertaining read, but was more fun when authors started doing it a few decades ago.
The author has the most fun when the Really Bad Guy endangers the world's currency and, with the aid of only a supernaturally-generated fortune, Douglas sets up an alternate currency for the whole world. Hallelujah.
This is an impressive first novel. I hope Ahlgren will keep writing but forget Hollywood and give his talent for inventive complexity full rein. But as he's worked as a financial analyst for 16 years, he's unlikely to take his eye off the mass market.
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