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Book Review : Thriller a Bearable Mix of Divinity and Debasement

July 02, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Sacred and Profane by Faye Kellerman (Arbor House: $16.95, 283 pages)

The mystery story is a form of entertainment that has been forced to bear an immense load of philosophical baggage. For example, Faye Kellerman's "Sacred and Profane" is ostensibly a thriller about the most repulsive varieties of prostitution, pornography and perversion--but the book also provides an elaborate subtext on the practices of modern Orthodox Judaism and the search for spiritual fulfillment in a violent and debased world. But the casual reader need not worry about overtaxing himself--Kellerman's theology, like her detective fiction, is serviceable but hardly challenging or profound.

"Sacred and Profane" is two books, really--a highly idealized love story about an Orthodox Jewish widow and a Gentile cop, and a squalid thriller about adolescent hookers, yuppies who make "snuff" films and an improbable gang of wealthy old men who prey on runaways and style themselves as "the Loving Grandpas."

While the affair of the heart between Rina, the exquisite young widow, and Decker, the rugged street cop, is refined and circumspect and (mostly) spiritual, the author forces herself to describe every revolting detail of the prostitution and pornography ring that Decker pursues after stumbling across the charred remains of two of its victims.

Heavy-Handed Irony

Kellerman adopts a tone of heavy-handed irony to express the contrast between the mean streets of Los Angeles, where Decker finds himself at war with both evil and self-doubt, and the serenity that prevails in the grounds of a yeshiva where Rina and her two young sons live. Thus, we are presented again and again with unsubtle juxtapositions--for example, we are invited to read a fragment of Hebrew liturgy ("Baruch atah Adonei... Blessed art Thou, Oh Lord, who has made a distinction between sacred and profane"), and on the next page, we encounter a graphic but utterly gratuitous description of intercourse. And in case the relentless irony is too elusive, Kellerman pauses to observe of Decker: "One minute he was a spiritual being, praying, seeking a higher order in his life; the next, knee deep in scum. . . .He was living in two worlds. . . ."

As a thriller, "Sacred and Profane" is no better and no worse than the bulk of the genre. Kellerman writes in the cursory prose of the 'commercial' novelist; the plot is mechanical, chugging along efficiently but without significant surprise, and periodically erupting into shoot-outs that are more than faintly reminiscent of episodic television. In case the reader finds the plot to be too thick, the author provides the frequent narrative summaries: "Did Lindsey ask Cecil to get Chris out of the way so she could run away with Dustin and throw suspicion on Chris?"

The crucial detective work is mostly performed by a sexually-aggressive forensic odontologist who manages to identify the body parts of miscellaneous suspects and victims by studying their dental work. (Kellerman, we are told by her publisher, is a dentist, as well as a fencer, a musician and guitar-maker and the mother of three young children.) Other important clues are the result of Decker's insight into the psychological linkages between arson, bed wetting and child abuse. (The author's husband, Jonathan Kellerman, has written on the subject of child abuse, both as a child psychologist and a novelist.)

Dilemma of Intermarriage

What made the book so troubling to me, however, is the fact that Kellerman has chosen a thriller--and a particularly grotesque thriller--to ponder the dilemma of intermarriage and the rewards of strict religious observance. But Kellerman reveals far more about the underworld of sexual violence than the spiritual teachings of traditional Judaism. And while she provides plenty of transliterated Hebrew and oblique glimpses of Jewish ritual and observance, Kellerman never manages to capture the richness of meaning in those traditions. As a result, the characters who are intended to demonstrate the power of the sacred in a profane world--especially the divine Ms. Rina--struck me as smug, self-absorbed and curiously inarticulate on the subject of Judaism.

Rina is sexually compelling, but it is her spiritual purity that attracts Decker and persuades him to undertake the demanding process of an Orthodox conversion to Judaism. "He wanted sex with sanctification," Kellerman explains. But the author is ultimately unwilling to confront the question of intermarriage--it turns out that Decker is not really a Gentile at all, but a Jew raised by the Baptist family that adopted him as an infant.

Above all, as an observant (although not Orthodox) Jew, I fear that Kellerman's rendering of Judaism will convey a misleading impression of Jewish culture, religious practice and theology. "I believe in Torah because its truths are absolute," Rina declares--but the enduring glory of authentic Judaism as expressed in the Torah and the Talmud is its spirited debate over the meaning and application of divine law.

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