Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dean Koontz’s Uneven Odds

Dean Koontz, prolific writer of popular supernatural thrillers, is also a craftsman who cares about the quality of his writing.  Here, for example, is the first sentence of Odd Apocalypse:

Near sunset of my second full day as guest in Roseland, crossing the immense lawn between the main house and the eucalyptus grove, I halted and pivoted, warned by instinct.

With six phrases and two precise verbs Koontz has laid out the landscape, characterized the narrator as a guest with “instinct” given to exploring alone, and added tension to the atmosphere.  The easy flow of the sentence halts with the narrator.  We don’t have to wait even one more sentence for the supernatural mystery to begin:  A woman on a black stallion gallops silently through the narrator.  This writing is effective and efficient. 

Koontz’s affable narrator Odd Thomas allows the writer to keep a “buoyant” tone (Odd’s word for his own outlook) through a ghastly tale.  “In addition to being a pretty good short-order cook, I have an occasional prophetic dream,” Thomas explains, mixing normal with paranormal as if it’s no big deal.  The more we read, the more we like this unassuming guy.  He empathizes with others, and his disarming modesty often does disarm aggressors, (though not massive mutant pig people in Odd Apocalypse).  Unlike a cool Bourne or  Bond, this guy is reluctant to hurt anyone, and liable to muck things up.  Even hiding from flesh-eating beasts, Odd has to fight the urge to sneeze.    While he sees the world as “a war zone” where we will all lose everything we love and life itself, “Yet,” he concludes, “everywhere I look, I find great beauty in this battlefield, and grace and the promise of joy” (16).  Reluctant to experience pain but unafraid of death, Odd repeats a prayer that his grandmother taught him, “Spare me that I may serve” (OA 14), and boldly goes forward.  For the future readers of his "memoir," he politely bleeps out cuss words.   

Writing in the character of Odd, Koontz sometimes crosses a line where the reader stops believing in the story and wonders instead at the judgement of the story writer.  Would a 22 year-old dropout itinerant short-order cook draw analogies to the “welcome wagon” and office politics?   Would he quote Shakespeare, citing act and scene numbers?  Would he know Eliot, James, Twain, classic Hitchcock movies, 1920 architect Addison Mizner, Silence of the Lambs and The Love Bug?  These sound more like references that would come to the mind of a Baby Boomer who has had years to sample literature and pop culture, not a young man who has had a lot more on his mind.

Update:  Before I get to some things about the novels that have detracted from their effect, I want to report on what happened when I completed reading Deeply Odd a few hours after I posted this article.  The story drew me on, page by page.  As I finished, a storm was agitating trees outside my window more with each clap of thunder.  Then two cockroaches flew across my room and met on the wall above my bed.  Carrying around Koontz's world in my imagination, I went after those roaches as if they were life-threatening entities. Hero of my own narrative, Odd-like I sought an unlikely weapon-- a dirty dress shirt -- to snap at the creatures.   Destroyed one; hunted the other.  My heart rate elevated for the next hour, watching the storm, waiting up for roach number two.  All of which is to say, Koontz's imagination had pulled me in all the way.  That's great!

Koontz is not above introducing plot devices disguised as characters.  Most annoying is a pregnant teenager named Annamaria.    The pretext for Odd Apocalypse is Annamaria’s decree that she and Odd Thomas need to visit this resort “Roseland.”  How do homeless teens afford it?  We learn that she has some kind of charisma that convinces Roseland’s reluctant owner to accept her and Odd as guests.  Once she has brought Odd to this place, she sits in her room for the rest of the novel.  She serves Koontz both by knowing enough to direct Odd Thomas, and by her exasperating habit of speaking in coy oracles.  In Deeply Odd, she does even less, but does appear in a Salvation Army store just when Odd needs some salvation.  She vanishes, evidently able to project her presence from dozens of miles away. That’s a talent that might help Odd (and Koontz) out of a dead-end in the plot.

Annamaria is just one example of how Koontz plants many a deus with a useful machina to give Koontz options when he needs to rescue Odd from tight corners, and putting Odd in tight corners every couple of chapters is the rhythm that Koontz keeps up in his stories.  This creates some inconsistencies.  An egregious example is the ghostly woman on the stallion who warns Odd to flee monsters approaching over the hill.  That’s fine.  But then, why doesn’t she appear next time he’s in the same situation? 

Because I’ve started reading the series with the latest two installments, I wonder if I’ve caught Odd Thomas at just the point where a good series gets out of hand?   It happened to Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, which started with a cast of characters who grew closer as they investigated murders in Richmond.  By the time I gave up on the series, the characters were so burdened with regrets and resentments that they just weren't fun anymore, and the plots were bloated with international conspiracies and robots. 

I understand that earlier Odd Thomas books put Odd in the role of a sort of ESP detective with dead clients.  That’s manageable and interesting.   Deeply Odd seems to be preparing ground for some kind of US civil war, as a rich old lady on the road with Odd introduces him to more quirky characters than Dorothy meets in The Wizard of Oz, all connected to an underground militia.  There’s a lot of talk about what the Government is doing, how even the Social Security Administration is arming. Yet Odd also disparages paranoid conspiracy theorists on TV and radio.

In Odd Thomas, Koontz is keeping balance between humor and horror.  Here’s hoping that he doesn’t lose that balance!

(Reflections on Odd Apocalypse and Deeply Odd, latest in a series by Dean Koontz.  Bantam Books.)
My reflection on the first book in the series:  "Odd Hours: Dean Koontz Keeps Reader Up Late."

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