A Serial Killer's Hit List
By: Ien Nivens - 03/29/2014
In a saner world, the premise of Ezra Barany’s second novel, 36 Righteous: A Serial Killer’s Hit List, would make no sense, but in a haters-gonna-hate universe where Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church dies confident of his place in Heaven and a host of jihadist suicide bombers share his optimism, we are obliged to grant credence to the story’s central motif. Barany pits two radical fundamentalist beliefs—one Jewish, the other Christian—against one another. The Jewish God has promised to spare the world so long as any one of a more-or-less replenishable stock of 36 righteous humans remains alive, while the same God, operating under a divergent Christian code of ethics, promises to destroy the world as it is and to usher in a newer, better age for the saints of all previous ages combined—a Heaven on Earth.
The conspiracy of 36 Righteous, then, is a Christian one bent on destroying those thirty-six souls who stand in the way of the rapture/resurrection and triumphant return of ten thousand (presumably an approximate number, but who knows?) The spiritual conundrum for those involved in the requisite round of assassinations—namely, that unrepentant murder disqualifies one from partaking in the blessings of rapture—goes unaddressed in the novel. Are we to suppose that God, in his Christian frame of mind, offers a special dispensation for those who willingly sacrifice their immortal souls for the greater good? Readers are left to their own devices to sort that one out. Unfortunately, the author’s inattention to this perplexing moral dilemma makes for a strikingly one-dimensional villain in Lieutenant General Richard Stone and for robotic minions in his team of assassins. We never quite understand what’s in it for them in carrying out the orders of the grand but anonymous conspiracy that orchestrates the murders.
Of more interest to Barany is the on-again, off-again relationship between the affectively disordered Nathan Yimorshy (a brilliantly conceived unreliable narrator, if ever there was one) and the seizure-prone Sophia Patai (both of whom debuted in Barany’s first novel, The Torah Codes). Sophia, as one of the thirty-six righteous, is in danger. The story pivots, sometimes dizzily, around Nathan’s desire to protect her and his competing wish to keep his distance from her for her own good.
A secondary and, in my view, more compelling relationship soon develops between Nathan and another member of the club of the righteous, a skateboarding teenaged Robin Hood conspiracy theorist named Cole Montgomery. The two hit it off over a truth-or-dare style card game that Nathan later turns into a comic interrogation technique, but the good chemistry between them ends abruptly. This is too bad, since it is in the Nathan-Cole scenes that Barany truly hits his stride. He displays a genuine sympathy for the disaffected but fair-minded youth and employs his remarkable inventiveness as a writer in ways that resonate more deeply with the emotions that drive this part of the story than in all the clever dazzle and distraction that propels the rest of the plot. The loss of Cole apparently inspired the collection of rabbinical essays and interviews on the question of “bad things happening to good people” that make up most of the novel’s appendices. Had Cole been allowed a more central role in the story, had the friendship between him and Nathan Yimorshy been allowed to manifest a bit more fully, the inclusion of the “bad things, good people” discussion might feel less arbitrary as a follow-up to an all’s-well-that-ends-well (or at least without apocalypse) story about competing ideologies, and not really about inconsolable grief.
36 Righteous is a flawed but entertaining work of fiction that indulges too much in the cleverness of its protagonist both in terms of his quirky ripostes and his needlessly improbable shenanigans in gaining access to an office in the Pentagon and subsequently escaping arrest. The reader is kept in the dark alongside the trusting Sophia with regard to Nathan’s daring and complex schemes, which unfold rather too smoothly for the anticipated adrenaline to kick in, in spite of the fact that they ultimately do not work to save her. The plot falls apart completely around Sophia’s ability to foil an attempt on her life with the help of a doctor’s advice regarding her life-support system. The entire scenario relies on advance knowledge of the would-be assassin’s choice of weapon, which Sophia cannot have had.
That Barany’s narrative ability manages to pull the reader along to such an unsatisfying conclusion leaves us hoping that he will discover, sooner rather than later, that the true convolutions of human character engage him—and entertain us, too—far more than the complicated chicanery he forces on his serial protagonist for the sake of a clever plot.