Dogging It

By Bill Sheehan,
author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree" and co-editor of the recent anthology "Lords of the Razor"
Thursday, November 29, 2007


By Dean Koontz

Bantam. 354 pp. $27

Dean Koontz loves dogs. For decades, dogs have played significant roles in his fiction, most notably in his 1987 novel "Watchers." They've also inspired a short, comic volume of canine wit and wisdom called "Life Is Good: Lessons in Joyful Living." Continuing this tradition, an unusual golden retriever named Nickie dominates Koontz's latest novel, "The Darkest Evening of the Year." The result is, simply put, literary slobber.

"Darkest Evening" opens when Amy Redwing, founder of the rescue organization Golden Heart, and Brian McCarthy, her architect boyfriend, liberate Nickie from the dog's drunken, abusive owner. It soon becomes apparent that Nickie is no ordinary dog. Her presence sends Brian into an extended fugue state in which he draws her image repeatedly, attempting to capture the mysterious essence in her eyes. Amy finds something strangely familiar in Nickie, who seems to embody long-buried elements of her own history. The past, both Amy's and Brian's, quickly becomes an integral part of the narrative, threatening the fragile present.

Amy's past includes early abandonment, a life divided between foster homes and a Catholic orphanage, a formative encounter with a golden retriever (also named Nickie) and a traumatic series of events that she keeps hidden from the world. Brian's past includes a disastrous relationship with Vanessa, a world-class sociopath with whom he fathered a child (named Hope) with Down syndrome. These disparate elements eventually connect, drawing Brian, Amy and the mysterious Nickie into a lethal confrontation with the darkest aspects of their collective past.

Mostly, though, the story serves as a framework for Koontz's personal philosophy, a set of guiding principles that he forces on the reader with relentless, didactic persistence, in part by trashing a number of modern novelists whom he considers destructively cynical. He believes that animals, dogs in particular, are inherently noble, even sacred. He believes that life has a profoundly spiritual dimension and that we are surrounded at all times by Meaning, by complex patterns we often fail to perceive. Conversely, he believes that the greatest human error lies in refusing to acknowledge the existence of Meaning, and in yielding to belief in a chaotic, random universe. These are reasonable, even honorable, beliefs, but they never take on the quality of felt life, trapped as they are in a narrative that is at once ponderous, self-satisfied and dull.

The problems, and there are many, begin with the characters. Amy and Brian are both saintly and fatally bland. The dialogue between them is annoying and overly arch, as in this early, unfortunately typical, exchange:

" 'I'd sure like to kiss you now,' he said.

" 'As long as we don't generate enough heat to bring the global-warming police down on us, go ahead.' "

The villains, on the other hand, are monolithic embodiments of evil. Chief among them are Vanessa and her current lover, cartoonlike figures who are in love with death, aroused by pain and filled with a kind of motiveless malignity that is neither interesting nor convincing.

The prose is a constant problem, too. Koontz is given to clumsy metaphors ("In the sky's distillery, the afternoon light was a weak brandy") and bizarre, unintentionally comic constructions ("Running horses on stone could have clopped no harder than his heart"). But Koontz's deepest, most besetting flaw is his compulsion to state the obvious, explaining every nuance. A quick example: After introducing a character who smuggles terrorists into the country and once castrated a pair of small-time marijuana dealers, Koontz tells us: "She was a beautiful woman and hard and strong, but she was not a good person." The cumulative effect is a predigested, deadening quality. By the novel's end, I found myself longing for some straightforward ambiguity.

At the same time, Koontz is fundamentally intolerant of writers with worldviews different from, or darker than, his own. This time out, his primary whipping boy is Kurt Vonnegut, though Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce and Franz Kafka also come under fire. To Koontz, Vonnegut is emblematic of a breed of writers "who sweetened their nihilism with giggles, the kind of guys who would be happy operating a weenie stand in Hell." Lowering the tone even further, Koontz adds a subplot involving a killer-for-hire who goes by the names of such Vonnegut characters as Billy Pilgrim, Eliot Rosewater and Dwayne Hoover, and who celebrates his sense of emptiness by taking lives and spreading pain wherever he goes. As gratuitous literary insults go, this one is an Olympic contender. It is also silly, mean-spirited and ineffectual. At the end of the day, there is more life, more authentic humanity, in the kindly, considered pessimism of Kurt Vonnegut than in all the airless pages of this dreary, interminable book.

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