By Dan Koontz
Putnam, 351 pp. $18.95
In "Lightning," Dean Koontz has attempted a mind-boggling hybrid, with elements of the romance, the science fiction novel, the Dickensian potboiler and the suspense thriller blended in the same melting pot. The central character, Laura Shane, suffers all manner of triumph and tragedy in the 30-plus years the novel encompasses.
After a mysterious stranger saves her at birth from the near-fatal attentions of a drunken doctor, she endures the death of her father, the dubious comforts of a child shelter, a near rape by a first-class sleazebag (Willy Sheener -- a name straight out of Dickens), the death of a much-loved foster mother, the death of a much-loved roommate, a perfect marriage, unbelievable success as a novelist, the death of a husband ... and so on.
Add to that her best friend's rise from child-shelter poverty to success as a comedian, the theme of time travel, the intrusion of Nazi Germany -- including a brief depiction of Hitler himself (not to mention Winston Churchill), the identity and purpose of the mysterious stranger, and a cat-and-mouse chase involving Laura and other characters, and we begin to see how chock full of plot "Lightning" is.
This is a high-tech, latter-day penny dreadful -- too plot-heavy, in fact, to probe the nuances of character. Koontz's writing is too broad for that. After spending the first 30 pages or so on faltering, clunky prose ("The stranger had unusually blue eyes that conjured in Markwell the image of a clear winter sky reflected in the millimeter-thin ice of a just-freezing pond"), the author plunges into all the romance, action and suspense that mark this type of novel, and holds the reader through the sheer momentum of story. As an old-fashioned cliffhanger, "Lightning" mostly succeeds; given that, perhaps we do not have to be concerned with subtleties of character.
Even so, the characters themselves are mostly a mixture of 19th- and 20th-century popular-fiction stereotypes -- the brave heroine, the cute kid, the adoring husband, the sinister villain, the aforementioned mysterious stranger, the faithful friend. Laura and those surrounding her are basically paper-thin entities who move through the story performing their functions exactly as we expect them to -- or perhaps even more predictably than we expect them to.
Laura comes to recognize the lightning of the title as a precursor of crucial events in her busy life. Additionally, it serves as a crude leitmotif to underscore the author's oft-repeated major theme -- "destiny struggles to reassert the pattern that was meant to be." With this portentous a phrase, it's not hard to guess that the author takes his work fairly seriously. In certain scenes, Koontz has one character or another deliver a pithy discourse: Laura lectures her son on the dangers of both violence and pacifism; another character expounds at length on the complexities of time travel; Laura's best friend muses out loud on the vicissitudes of fate that killed her sister. All this sermonizing is done with much fanfare and emphasizes the author's desire to make his points as forcefully as possible.
Koontz has written decidedly better novels in the same genre; such works as "Phantoms," "Whispers" and the recent "Strangers" all attest to the writer's ability to present clean, suspenseful prose populated by full-blooded, unpredictable characters and situations. Certainly "Lightning" has its plot twists, but they are too little and too late to make for a consistently satisfying read.
If Koontz has built his reputation upon stories about everyday characters confronting strange occurrences in the course of their daily routines, perhaps he should be careful to ensure that those characters possess more than one dimension as they go about their business. Otherwise, as is the case here, even if "Lightning" does strike the same reader twice, it is sure to leave little evidence of its momentary presence.
The reviewer is a free-lance writer in New York.