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Unassigned Territory

Kem Nunn

Laurel / Bantam Doubleday Dell

US Trade Paperback

ISBN 0-440-50009-5

Publication Date: 1987

305 Pages; $7.95

Date Reviewed: 07-31-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



General Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction


Kem Nunn is a product of the U. C. Irvine writing program cursed by a movie deal that saw his fantastic first novel, 'Tapping the Source' altered beyond recognition until it reputedly become the core of the movie 'Point Break', with which it has very little in common. Given all the attention paid to 'Tapping the Source', Nunn's second novel, 'Unassigned Territory' passed by virtually without notice. This is most unfortunate, because it is to this reader his best novel. 'Tapping the Source' strides fearlessly across all genres, creating its own desert vibe of science fiction, horror, and mystery. Blessed with a vicious sense of humor, cursed by the fame and praise heaped upon its predecessor, laced with genre tropes sure to alienate the same literati who praised 'Tapping the Source', 'Unassigned Territory' is one of those novels you're going to have to search for on the Internet. It's worth the search. This unique novel offers up slices of a life not lived since Flannery O'Connor sent Hazel Motes in search of a New Jesus in 'Wise Blood'.

In one of those twists that only happens in real life, 'Unassigned Territory' was actually nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for the best novel of 1987. Of course, up against Stephen King's 'Misery' and Robert R. McCammon's 'Swan Song', it didn't have a hope of winning, and in fact, did not win. King and McCammon shared the prize. Instead it disappeared from the landscape, an outcast between the worlds of hardcore genre horror and high falutin' litrachur.

'Unassigned Territory' begins as Obadiah Wheeler, a member of the fundamentalist sect called The Way, seeks to ensure his 4D status as a minister by heading out into the Mojave Desert with a carload of sect members to seek new converts to The Way's peculiar point of view. He becomes lost on the way, separated and ends up at a Desert Museum where Sarge Hummer exhibits 'The Thing', which may be an alien artifact of immense power. Seduced by the Sarge's daughter, his quest is altered as he becomes one of the 'seekers born every minute', looking for a UFO cult that may have a better clue than the Sargeof what to do with 'The Thing'.

Nunn is a fantastic stylist and humorist. He effortlessly creates the ramshackle edges of the California desert in all their seedy glory, and populates them with characters who are as strikingly realistic as they are laugh-out-loud hilarious. "What began as a scam ended up as an obsession." Bug House, Harlan, Delandra and Obadiah hopscotch across a quintessential American landscape of dreamers, converts, con-men and cops. Here's a novel in which the urine-soaked bathrooms of lonely gas stations are spray painted with graffiti warning of the coming of Cthulhu.

Nunn understands that the human mind is every bit as alien as any artifact from another planet, and that power over an individual is every bit as satisfying as the power to change the world. If Flannery O'Connor had written 'Repo Man' you might have a hope of there being a novel as weird and as excellent as this one. But that has not happened and is not going to happen. Instead, you'd best get out the search engines and see if you can track down this neglected classic.