By JOSEPH W.
Self-published novels can make for dismal reading - loaded with typos, flat characters and uninspired plotting.
That is not the case with Larry Stout's "Nightfall."
Stout is a Montgomery native whose latest is the second in a planned trilogy focused on an elusive young prodigy.
I came upon "Nightfall" when Stout and I met at Otto Bookstore, where were we each doing a First Friday signing. My interest was piqued by its back-cover blurb listing Chuck Colson, Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til among the characters.
I didn't think there were many folks in Central Pennsylvania who'd even heard of Van Til - much less inserting him into a globetrotting metaphysical thriller.
But Van Til - a revered theologian who taught for decades at Philadelphia's Westminster Seminary - is not the main character here.
That would be Tyler Jackson, a Montgomery teen who in 1967 gets much attention - some unwanted - when he writes a paper explaining how to build an atomic bomb.
A mysterious global organization would love to get its hands on that info - but never fear; not only does the FBI get involved, but the brilliant Jackson also is perfectly capable of fending for himself. And then some.
He's an expert in disguise, can tap out Morse Code while talking about something else, predicts wins and losses in professional sports, and at age 14, has read "Moby Dick" and Gottfried Liebniz's "Theodicy" - the latter in the original German.
Jackson goes on the run, staying one step ahead of his pursuers while assisting the career of the story's other main character, likable FBI operative Eric Wallenberg.
Stout will not explain in this novel how Jackson became so supernaturally clever and capable -I imagine that's coming up in book No. 3, "Sundial," due out sometime in the next year.
Instead, "Nightfall" becomes at once a fascinating travelogue and a thoughtful look at Jackson's quest for spiritual truth - and Stout himself proves clever and capable at both these tasks.
The book is a cornucopia of detail on its mid-sixties time period, on FBI procedure, on European geography, major league baseball, the Crusades, Middle Eastern politics, "The Twilight Zone" and global military history.
"Nightfall" will be of particular interest to Sun-Gazette readers for its keen local detail on Montgomery, Allenwood Prison, long-forgotten Alvira and the Pennsylvania Ordnance Works; those with broader interests will relish the astonishingly authentic ambience of Riga, Jerusalem, Switzerland, Adelaide, Quito and Miami.
In his wide-ranging travels, Jackson takes up theological discussions with Schaeffer, Colson and Van Til - all making a smooth and firm defense of Biblical Christianity (though Tyler himself isn't always persuaded).
And while Stout pulls off the Christian apologetics fairly well, I wasn't quite buying Jackson's tendency to bump into evangelicals everywhere he goes; and "Nightfall" is also weakened by a proclivity for explaining key plot developments via broad summary of past events - rather than taking us through it in real-time narrative.
Nevertheless, this smart and craftily written volume will leave many readers anxious for the final installment.