By Dean Koontz
Bantam. 401 pp. $27
Dean Koontz has published more than 40 novels. Years ago I read one of them. It was about a town terrorized by wild dogs. I don't remember if these were flesh-and-blood dogs or phantom dogs, but in either event killer canines are not my idea of fun, and Koontz was not a writer I returned to. Then, a few weeks ago, Publishers Weekly, in its pre-publication review, gave Koontz's new novel its highest rating and declared that, in a just universe, the literary establishment would pay more attention to this talented, highly successful storyteller. Leaving aside the question of whether this column is even distantly connected to the literary establishment (ain't nobody here but us middlebrows), the review aroused my curiosity. Had Publishers Weekly's reviewer taken leave of his or her senses, or had Koontz raised his sights higher than wild dogs?
It turns out that PW was right. Koontz has advanced from killer dogs to killer clowns, with delightful results. "Life Expectancy" is an inventive, often hilarious fable about decency adrift in a world of madness. It is narrated by a latter-day Candide named Jimmy Tock. In its wild and crazy opening chapters, Jimmy recalls the events surrounding his birth on Aug. 9, 1974 ("the day Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States"), in a little hospital in rural Colorado. It turns out that Rudy Tock, a pastry chef, and his wife, Maddy, who did pet portraits, were not the only expectant parents that day. Konrad Beezo, a nervous, chain-smoking clown (from a circus that was passing through town), was also awaiting the delivery of his first child. When he learned that his wife -- from a celebrated family of high-wire artists who opposed her marriage to a lowly clown -- had died in delivery, Konrad pulled a gun and killed the doctor and nurse who attended her.
Chaos ensued: "Stepping out of the delivery room, Dad came face to face with the homicidal clown." Dad helped fight off the killer, who escaped with his infant son, Punchinello Beezo. At least we think it was his infant son -- you know how confusing things get during delivery room shootouts. Oh, one more thing happened while the bullets were flying. At the very moment that little Jimmy was born, his grandfather Josef died, but not before making a very specific prediction: His grandson would experience five terrible days in his life, and he helpfully gave the date for each.
From birth, Jimmy notes unhappily, his life has been "a yo-yo on the string of fate." The first of the five fateful days comes in 1994, when Jimmy is 20. That afternoon, Jimmy, a pastry chef like his father and grandfather before him, makes an unwise decision to drive to town to take care of a few errands. In the public library, he meets a handsome, green-eyed man who proceeds to shoot the librarian dead and take Jimmy hostage. The young man is, of course, Punchinello Beezo, returned to gain revenge on the town that he thinks killed his mother.
Soon after Jimmy is seized, a woman enters the library. "She was prettier than a gâteau à l'orange with chocolate-butter icing decorated with candied orange peel and cherries," Jimmy tells us, in the first of many pastry-related paeans to Lorrie Lynn Hicks, who proves to be fearless. Handcuffed to Jimmy by this latest killer clown, she intends to slip a nail file from her purse and punch the captor's eyes out. When Jimmy questions her plan, she replies: "I hope to God you're not a congenital pessimist. That would be just too much -- held hostage by a librarian killer and shackled to a congenital pessimist." Punchinello, aided by two clown associates, intends to descend into subterranean tunnels, blow up the town with dynamite, rob the local bank and kill his two hostages before making his escape. His plan goes awry, however, and Jimmy and Lorrie survive to marry, have children and face the four remaining terrible days in his life.
Jimmy sometimes despairs: "No family of good, kind-hearted bakers should have to be afflicted with two generations of Beezos." But Lorrie remains a rock. When he says that in marrying him, she has inherited his curse, she replies: "There's no curse. There's only life the way it is." And so it goes. The Tock family must confront more terrible days, each as fearsome as the one before. Jimmy, struggling to protect his family, is forced to admit: "I can't explain the why of life, the patterns of its unfolding. I can't explain it -- but, oh, how I love it." He can always fall back on a baker's philosophy: "When the pain passes, there is always cake."
How you respond to all this will depend in part on your tolerance for whimsy. But Koontz is an adroit storyteller, and the adventures of the Tocks, although they could use some trimming, are funny, scary and entertaining. Koontz's message is one of optimism. His tale perhaps most resembles Thornton Wilder's great comic play "The Skin of Our Teeth," another reminder that humankind, armed with love, courage and dumb luck, can confront endless adversity and somehow prevail.