Apr 23, 08
Recommended to Jack by:
a crazed clownish friend
only bored die-hard Koontz fans
Read in March, 2006
Dean Koontz reigns as the Henry Ford of novelists. Ford invented assembly line production, a way of mass-producing automobiles. Ford out produced other automakers and at the same time delivered a quality product. His Model T remains perhaps the most successful automobile ever made. Ford Motor Company occasionally made mistakes; the Edsel of the mid-1950s was its most glaring and infamous. Dean Koontz, like Ford has developed a method of cranking out novels at an amazing pace, over 60 in the span of about 30 years. Koontz too, has developed a wildly popular product: 22 New York Times #1 bestsellers, and dozens more making the bestseller list. He also makes mistakes, and Life Expectancy rattletraps along as Dean Koontz’s Edsel.
Koontz's standard assembly line formula calls for immediately tossing the reader into an improbable situation, usually involving something supernatural that stretches belief. As his story rolls down the line, Koontz, through strong, believable characters and meticulous research, constructs plausibility. Once his readers take the hook, Koontz leads them on a Ludlum-like roller coaster ride culminating in a rip-roaring climax. The finished product routinely sells, and Life Expectancy, another bestseller, illustrates that. But, despite Koontz’s success and book sales, Life satisfies like years-old McDonald’s fries lifted from the floorboard of an old Edsel.
True to formula, Koontz starts "Life" with a supernatural bang: “On the night that I was born, my paternal grandfather, Josef Tock, made ten predictions that shaped my life. Then he died in the very minute that my mother gave birth to me." It seems our narrating hero Jimmy Tock’s grandpa, while in his hospital death bed, predicts ten days of life threatening – life changing crises for about to be born Jimmy’s future, down to the very year, date and even day of the week they will arrive. Fittingly, this night of Jimmy’s birth and of his grandpa’s date-picking looms as an ominously dark and stormy one. Jimmy’s dad Rudy Tock dutifully writes down each dreaded date on a circus pass that Konrad Beezo, a manifestly insane circus clown that Rudy met in the waiting room, gave him. At the same time, Beezo is being informed by a doctor that his wife, a circus aerialist, has just died giving birth to a baby boy. Beezo, being insane and not too happy about the news, responds in a very unclown-like manner, gunning down everyone: doctors, nurses, patients, cops, but spares Rudy, his wife and their just-born little Jimmy because Rudy, after all, had become his waiting room buddy. Beezo then grabs his own newborn son and flees into the stormy night. Typical of Koontz’s formula, this opening sounds improbable and stretches belief. But we ain't seen nothin' yet.
At this point Koontz usually displays his skillful ability to build complex, likeable or hate-able characters that we really love or loathe. He dazzles us with special knowledge on the intricacies of his premise. Not so this time. Jimmy, now grown and following in chef dad’s footsteps, becomes an apprentice pastry chef. But more than fluffy crullers, Jimmy cooks comedy. If Comedy Central Network had a cooking show, Jimmy would be a natural. And apparently its genetic, because Mom, Dad and Grandma Rowena appear as stand-up-comic wannabes, which Koontz artificially wields, brandishing some witty dinner table conversations.
Along about the fifth prediction (the predictions tend to run together after awhile) 20 year-old Jimmy meets his wife-to-be, Lorrie. They bump into each other while being held hostage by an insane criminal who happens to be setting explosives in the old mine tunnels underneath their Colorado town. The criminal determines to destroy the entire town just after he robs the bank. This evil doer’s name? Why it’s Punchinello Beezo, the insane clown Konrad’s now grown son, who Jimmy snidely describes as “a graduate of Hannibal Lecter University, ready for a career in hospitality services as the new manager of the Bates motel." Punchinello’s accomplices are Honker and Crinkles…yes, two circus clowns. Lorrie, as coincidence would have it, also happens to be a natural born comedienne. Jimmy and Lorrie fall in love while entertaining Punchinello and his clown henchmen with impromptu comedy routines to relieve the tension as the villains set explosives. The evil triumvirate serves as a Bud Abbott for the lovebirds Lou Costello while they prepare to destroy the town.
Forget Koontz’s formula,these characters and this tale crossover into preposterous. "Life’s" premise and its characters ring patently false, functioning as mere vehicles to steer Koontz’s brand-new comedic engine. For Koontz fans, Life drifts so far from his natural course, we are left clutching for the wheel and scratching our heads. Is it camp, or is it crap? It’s almost as if Koontz has been waiting his whole life to write this book, as if Brando was crying out: “I coulda been a comedy writer! I coulda been a comedy writer, instead of a novelist, which is what I am.” Yet Koontz didn’t peddle however many millions of books by being a poor writer. In its way, Life entertains, and there exists strewn about, moments of excellent craft, like the smattering of lifeboats rowing away from the Titanic.
In some ironic sense, Jimmy Tock’s book-ending reflection on life’s meaning also mirrors Life’s epitaph. “By laughing, you do not use up your laughter, but increase your store of it” Jimmy preaches. And Koontz does provide a packed carload of clown’s humor, but too often we find ourselves laughing at the author and his buffoonish characters. Jimmy further instructs: “the more you expect from life, the more your expectations will be fulfilled.” We expected more from Koontz.