I think it’s safe to say that Dean Koontz, who’s already churned out more New York Times bestsellers than most authors could reasonably hope to write in a lifetime, does not need a review on The Looseleaf Report to further his career. And I think it’s equally safe to suggest that anything I say about him, positive or negative, will have no impact whatsoever on his illustrious track record. In fact, I’d suspect that Koontz is smart enough to ignore all his reviews, and if he needs any reassurance about his talents, such as they are, all he has to do is check his bank account. Koontz, in short, is review-proof; I doubt that even the savagery of Times critic Michiko Kakutani could ruin his day.
So why am I reviewing a Koontz book, particularly one that was originally published in 2004? Because I keep thinking about the book—for all the wrong reasons.
That I read it at all could be called an act of destiny that Koontz himself might build an entire plot around. I was visiting my mother in Florida, and somebody had abandoned a copy of Life Expectancy by the pool. Having never read Koontz, I was curious. Also, I think it’s a good idea to occasionally read enormously successful bestsellers by writers of no known literary merit—like Dan Brown. There’s always something to be learned.
So I picked up Life Expectancy and—unlike Brown’s hackneyed Da Vinci Code, which I tossed aside after a few paragraphs—I was hooked. And I stayed hooked for 200 pages. Like Stephen King, whom Koontz is often compared to (and whose “voice” is virtually indistinguishable from Koontz’s), he knows how to tell a story. Or at least he knows how to get one off the ground, and, in the process, work in an interesting point or two—like why God is not Santa Claus and why people laugh at sitcoms that aren’t funny.
The problem with Life Expectancy, however, is that it’s 496 bloated pages, and it was hard to imagine, after 200 pages, how Koontz would be able to keep it going for another 296. In seeking an answer, I read the book straight through to the end before abandoning it in the seat pocket of an airplane, feeling as if I’d ingested 10,000 calories of the fattiest kind of mental junk food—the equivalent of, say, 200 or so éclairs baked by Jimmy Tock, the quirky yet lovable pastry chef who narrates Life Expectancy, which is supposed to be his autobiography. The story in a nutshell: Tock lives with a prophecy; he will confront unspeakable horror on five days in his life, and he knows the dates.
Standard fare for a book of this kind, to be sure. And Koontz keeps it moving along at a brisk pace by employing every cheap trick and cliché in his bag. Among them are evil clowns; middling sitcomish humor; secret passageways; one-dimensional characters acting improbably in improbable situations; implying a character is dead only to later reveal that he isn’t; and, most important to his modus operandi, withholding vital information till the end of the book that he should have divulged at the beginning. Also in the tradition of such novels, it appears the primary purpose of dialogue is to fill space—there are lots of meaningless exchanges where the characters say one or two words each, and keep it up for the better part of a page.
Yet this was all forgivable because Life Expectancy is intended as nothing more than a routine work of genre fiction, and it’s hardly one of the worst. But there’s one other factor that must be taken into consideration.
Obviously I’m not the first person to wonder if Koontz takes money for product placement in his novels—he denies the charge on his website. Yet, his use of a Ford off-road vehicle at a crucial plot point seemed like blatant product placement, and it broke whatever remained of the spell Koontz had cast.
A Ford Explorer driven by Tock, the pastry-baking narrator, outmaneuvers a Hummer driven by a homicidal clown. And not once in this seemingly endless and unnecessarily detailed scene does Koontz use a synonym for “Ford Explorer,” like “SUV” or “light truck.” Page after page he never lets you forget that it’s a humble Explorer careening impossibly up and down the side of a steep, snow-covered mountain, carrying Tock and his pregnant wife to safety.
And it was here I realized that the true horror of Dean Koontz is that it’s books like his that dominate the publishing industry—at the expense of better, more compelling books by writers who aren’t as formulaic, shallow, or blatantly commercial. Of course, this is old news to anybody who’s been paying attention. But like that Ford Explorer, Life Expectancy rubs this sad reality in your face, and ultimately becomes something far more cynical than the escapist trash it’s supposed to be.