[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: (Koontz) Receiving Moral Instruction, Courtesy of a Serial Killer
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Mon May 23 21:06:00 UTC 2005
Receiving Moral Instruction, Courtesy of a Serial Killer
New York Times Daily Book Review, 5.5.23
[Thanks to Sarah for this.]
By JANET MASLIN
Although the thriller-sermon is an unusual hyphenate, Dean Koontz
makes it his specialty. He writes about humble four-square heroes who
try to lead exemplary lives but are challenged by the evils of the
wider world. If those evils happen to be gruesome and sick enough to
sell a lot of books, one might make the case that Mr. Koontz cannot
define goodness without them. Maybe.
But does every moral lesson require a Hannibal Lecter? The lurid
extremes of "Velocity," Mr. Koontz's latest, come mighty close to
cashing in on the very sinfulness he decries. The novel's resident
good guy, Billy Wiles, is bedeviled by a serial killer who tries to
make Billy complicit in his violence. He forces Billy to pick the
victims. And he sends Billy such high-concept threatening letters that
one of them is conveniently reprinted on the book's back cover.
"Velocity" might be read as a flat-out exercise in escapist depravity
- in other words, par for the course in popular crime fiction - were
it not for the author's nonstop idiosyncrasies. Say this for Mr.
Koontz: he is skillful in ways that make "Velocity" live up to its
title, and nobody will ever accuse him of formulaic writing. He starts
this book with a death by garden gnome. ("The gnome was made of
concrete. Henry wasn't.") He includes a sweet young woman who believes
she is a haruspex (a reader of entrails). In a further oblique nod to
Scrabble, he makes Billy a woodcarver who likes listening to zydeco.
Whimsy notwithstanding, Mr. Koontz also has blunt points to make. He
underscores Billy's devotion to Barbara, his fiancée, who has been in
a coma for four years, though she continues to say cryptic, beautiful
things. (These are eventually explained.) Despite this sign of life,
Barbara's doctor suffers a "bioethics infection" that makes him want
to remove Barbara's feeding tube. "Four years is such a long time,"
says the doctor. "Death is longer," says steadfast Billy. Mr. Koontz
also condemns scientists who work on cloning, genetic engineering and
stem cell research. ("The smarter they are, the dumber they get.") He
has Billy flirt with drug use to show how it can be dangerous to the
soul. "Pain is a gift," he writes, after Billy discovers Vicodin.
"Humanity, without pain, would know neither fear nor pity. Without
fear, there could be no humility, and every man would be a monster."
Mr. Koontz saves particular scorn for the artist who is building a
huge mural that will be destroyed as soon as it is completed. (The
same artist once popped 20,000 helium balloons in Australia.) On the
mural, a "40-foot wooden man strove to save himself from the great
grinding wheels of industry or brutal ideology, or modern art." The
author is closer to Christ than he is to Christo, and he wants to make
that extra-specially clear.
Then there is the killer who taunts Billy - or "the freak," as the
fiend is often called here. It goes without saying that the freak is a
sadist: his filthy deeds include nailing Billy's hand to a wooden
floor and sticking fishhooks in Billy's brow. (Billy "recognized the
religious reference. Christ had been called a fisher of men.") But
beyond committing ugly physical violence, the freak means to shake
Billy's faith. As the book puts it, straight from the pulpit, "There
are days of doubt, more often lonely nights, when even the devout
wonder if they are heirs to a greater kingdom than this earth and if
they will know mercy - or if instead they are only animals like any
other, with no inheritance except the wind and the dark." Mr. Koontz
has the rare desire and even rarer dexterity to shoehorn passages like
that into whodunit material. So this book wears its conscience on its
sleeve even as it puts Billy on the receiving end of messages like
this: "If you don't go to the police and get them involved, I will
kill an unmarried man who won't much be missed by the world. If you do
go to the police, I will kill a young mother of two."
For Billy, this is even more compromising than it might be for others.
"He would have preferred physical peril to the moral jeopardy that he
faced," Mr. Koontz writes.
Then Billy begins to realize - this is a mystery story, after all -
that the killer may be somebody he knows. And as the homilies continue
to pile up, so do the corpses and the kinks. But a book that features
grotesque mutilations alongside sincere expressions of sweetness (a
house glowing "like a centenarian's birthday cake") is suffering an
identity crisis at the very least. At worst, it is drawn to the dark
side with disturbing ardor.
As for looking on the bright side, "Velocity" will be very popular
with readers who do. It can be read more as a parable than as a
self-contradictory screed if Billy's trials are rolled into one long
journey through "this most temporary world." Here he is, seeking
spiritual wisdom despite a world that makes truck stops easier to
enter than churches (in the middle of the night, at least), finding
himself tested at every turn:
"Billy's fate was to live in a time that denied the existence of
abominations, that gave the lesser name horror to every abomination,
that redefined every horror as a crime, every crime as an offense,
every offense as a mere annoyance." Mr. Koontz's self-appointed job
here is to give those abominations their due.
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