[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: (Koontz) Receiving Moral Instruction, Courtesy of a Serial Killer

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Receiving Moral Instruction, Courtesy of a Serial Killer
New York Times Daily Book Review, 5.5.23
[Thanks to Sarah for this.]


    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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