FOREVER ODD

By Dean Koontz

Bantam. 334 pp. $27

The prolific Dean Koontz's new novel brings back Odd Thomas -- Odd is his name, not an adjective, although he is in fact plenty odd -- who was introduced in the 2003 bestseller that bore his name. In the previous novel, an extremely evil fellow came to Pico Mundo, the little California town where Odd works as a short-order cook, and killed 19 people, including Odd's girlfriend. In this sequel, Odd's dear friend Danny is kidnapped by some nasty characters, and Odd must risk all to save him. The sweet-tempered Odd is aided in his pursuit by having paranormal powers, including the ability to see the spirits of the dead and a "psychic magnetism" that can guide him to missing persons.

The dead, Odd has learned, do not always proceed directly to the next world. Some linger on this earth and seek out Odd because he will talk to them. They cannot talk back but sometimes respond with gestures. Odd is frequently visited by the shade of Elvis Presley, who cries a lot. Despite Odd's encouragement, Elvis is afraid to proceed to the hereafter because he thinks himself unworthy to be reunited with his beloved mother.

These Elvis sightings, although colorful, have nothing to do with the plot of "Forever Odd," and in fact its plot, if fitfully scary, is awfully thin. It comes and goes, and in between the novel is padded with strange characters, pop-culture references and philosophical observations of the sort seen on greeting cards. Like several of Koontz's recent bestsellers, "Forever Odd" is an inventive but often bizarre mix of suspense, whimsy and uplift.

After his friend is kidnapped, Odd makes time for breakfast with his 400-pound mentor P. Oswald (Ozzie) Boone, who has six fingers on one hand and writes mystery novels about a bulimic female detective. Ozzie has a cat named Terrible Chester, who makes a habit of peeing on Odd's shoes and also shares Odd's ability to see the dead. For 15 pages, Odd and Ozzie eat a lot and kick around questions like "What's wrong with humanity?" -- this is a novel that offers a lot of shallow answers to deep questions. Odd and his friends share with us many maxims that are apparently intended to inspire, such as "The joys of life can be found anywhere. Far places only offer exotic ways to suffer" and "If you're still, and if you don't hope too much, peace will come to you" and "Every day we make our way through a moral forest, along pathways ever branching." Koontz also stirs endless pop-culture references into the mix. We learn that Odd not only talks to Elvis, he also has erotic dreams about Jennifer Aniston, and he tosses out mentions of Hemingway, Shakespeare, Orpheus, King Kong, Demi Moore, the Rapture, the movie "Aliens" and Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky." When not astounding us with his cultural awareness, Odd makes dumb jokes -- saying the Devil scares him but so do Brussels sprouts. He likes that line so much he repeats it twice.

Eventually Odd confronts the villains, who are led by a gorgeous nutcase named Datura. Odd's kidnapped friend warns, "She's crazier than a syphilitic suicide bomber with mad-cow disease," and Odd himself compares her to Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, and then digresses on Kali in case we haven't encountered her before. After a lot of fanciful conflict, which includes Odd summoning a poltergeist and hints of voodoo, Koontz wraps things up with not one but two endings, both pretty weird but, in the context of the novel, reasonable enough.

I wanted to like this book, in part because I read so many novels about tough cops and serial killers that it's refreshing to come across a character as good-hearted as Odd. I enjoyed Koontz's recent "Life Expectancy," which also had imperiled innocence as its theme. But "Life Expectancy," which pits a gentle pastry cook against a family of killer clowns, had a more focused plot and far less padding. Both books have a good deal of fairy tale in them: Koontz's pastry chef and short-order cook, two innocents confronting unspeakable evil, could trace their lineage to Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.

I suspect that those who make Koontz's recent books bestsellers are not the same people who make, say, Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn's shoot-'em-ups popular. I think they're probably gentle folk who like to retreat into the alternative universe Koontz creates, a fairy-tale world, one more open to happy endings than the one we have, in which a pure-hearted fellow like Odd can triumph over all manner of evil. And there's nothing wrong with that -- many of us share that fantasy from time to time.

The problem with "Forever Odd" isn't its philosophy but its execution. The writing is crisp, and Odd has his charms, but his first-person narrative is a mess. Odd spends too much time creeping through dark tunnels as he pursues or flees villains, and Koontz spends too much time diverting us with tidbits that have nothing to do with his story. This is not to say the book won't delight his fans, for it probably will. Koontz started out in science fiction and since 1968 has published 70 or 80 novels under his own name and various pseudonyms. He's an interesting writer with a voice all his own, but when you write that many novels, you're bound to have some clunkers. If you want to experience Koontz for the first time, "Forever Odd" isn't the best place to start.