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Militia Madness in Orange County : FICTION : THE TRIGGERMAN'S DANCE, By T. Jefferson Parker (Hyperion: $21.95; 356 pp.)

June 23, 1996|Bob Sipchen | Bob Sipchen is a Times staff writer and a frequent contributor to Book Review

There's something irresistible about the thought of kicking back on the sand at Newport or Doheny with a novel whose black heart offers passage to the dark side of the eternally cheerful Orange County facade.

Opening with a rain-soaked corpse in a Costa Mesa parking lot, "The Triggerman's Dance" holds promise as the perfect counterbalance to a sunny summer day.

Rebecca Harris, an intern at the Orange County Journal, has just been shot through the heart from 300 yards. The local cops find two shells. One is engraved with the words "When in the course of human events--." The other reads, "--it becomes necessary."

Susan Baum, the Journal's knee-jerkily liberal columnist, immediately and correctly concludes that the bullets were intended for her. A group calling itself "The Freedom Ring" takes credit. It looks like a hate crime. The FBI steps in.

As it happens, special agent Joshua Weinstein and Harris were engaged. Weinstein makes the case his crusade. As it also happens, Harris and John Menden, the Journal's outdoor writer, were having an affair. Devastated, Menden moves to the desert town of Anza Valley, where Weinstein finds him living in a trailer with his hunting dogs.

So far, the pages are turning fast enough to fan back the sand fleas.

Then former FBI agent Vann Holt turns up. A descendant of Orange County's white pioneers, Holt lives in a fenced, 2,000-acre spread near Camp Pendleton, complete with helipad, shooting gallery and similar standard issue suspense fiction accouterments. Holt calls the place Liberty Ridge and uses it to train the troops he employs in an international security business.

The event that drove Holt into the hills, and into the sort of media-hating, immigrant-fearing paranoia currently so fashionable, was another shooting. A young Latino activist named Jimmy Ruiz had fired into a fast-food joint, killing Holt's son, Patrick, and crippling Carolyn Holt, Vann's wife.

When police busted the shooter, a relative of Ruiz's had claimed--falsely by all indications--that Patrick Holt had raped her, that the shooting was revenge. The case became a cause, complete with chanting demonstrators: "Justice, please. Justice, please. Free the hero, Jimmy Ruiz."

It's here that the reader will likely slap "The Triggerman's Dance" onto a pinkening thigh and give the literary gods a knowing wink. Parker's attempting some sort of "Laguna Beach Bonfire of the Vanities," right? A black comedy about Southern California's incorrigible racial politics?

Alas, a return to the text reveals that Parker is serious--dead serious, to use the book's hard-to-stomach hard-boiled cadence. In that humorlessness this novel fails.

The Feds make Menden their informant. As they put him through the obligatory desert training sequence--"They run. They shoot. They run. They fight."--the soaring scores from all those "rag-tag band of vigilantes" movies pop into a reader's mind. When a gang of chain-wielding bikers gets into the act, it's hard not to envision Leslie Nielsen in the cast.

"The Triggerman's Dance" gets its topicality from news stories--an old and honorable fiction trick. Parker's embellishment of events, though--from Ruby Ridge-style militia madness to follow-home robberies committed by Vietnamese gangs--doesn't ring true. The tone and detail seem not so much imagined as implanted by distant memories of old TV: "The Rockford Files," maybe, or "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

There is other evidence that Parker may not have squeezed his cortex hard enough here. In the book's first five pages, for instance, the reader encounters a "tallish" columnist and a "newish" Ford. Such lazyish craftsmanship compounds the problem of wobbly plot transitions, suggesting that the book was knocked together in haste.

Parker packs his most compelling material into the Menden and Holt characters, who manage to show depth despite all their formulaic helicoptering and huggermuggering.

Holt loves southern Orange County's sage-scented chaparral. But his feverish grief contorts his world view, transforming nonwhite humanity into an invading horde.

As a boy, Menden had flown over the county in a Piper Cub with his father, who told him the county "belongs to whoever puts down his roots there." When he arrives undercover at Liberty Ridge years later, he is already connected. He becomes a surrogate son of sorts to Holt, and Holt's daughter's lover. But Menden's potential to cinch up the book's metaphorical threads peters out. The thoughtful sub-currents never connect with the comic-book plot.

In a better novel, the fact that the bad guys are often more honorable than the good guys, that a character's racism is interwoven with humanity, that the inflicters of injustice have been subjected to the same, would signify complexity, nuance and artistic integrity.

In "The Triggerman's Dance," the reader is left with the uneasy feeling that the author himself is confused.

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