As publishers depend more and more on a small, and shrinking, aristocracy of best-selling authors, those novelists are cranking out books with greater and greater frequency. Every year there are new titles from Anne Rice, Elmore Leonard, Danielle Steel, Patricia Cornwell, Michael Crichton, and another two, or three, from Stephen King. Now Dean Koontz (Dark Rivers of the Heart, Intensity) is on the superfast track — but the breakneck pace has begun to show.
A chase thriller without very many thrills, or even much energy, Sole Survivor is a slapdash collage of other, better Koontz novels. The hero, once again, is a solitary mope with a rotten, traumatic childhood; the bad guys all work for an amoral multinational corporation ”capable of compromising and subverting any institution or agency of the federal or state governments.” And as usual, Big Science, not the supernatural, is what causes misery, doom, and spooky phenomena.
It’s too bad that Koontz didn’t hold on to the manuscript a little bit longer, comb it for plot gaffes, or bother to rethink how his story might unfold. Because if he had paid more attention to craft, goaded his splendid but lazy imagination, and played a few twists on familiar themes, this could have been a paranoid classic.
Instead, this is what we get: On the anniversary of the plane crash that killed his wife and two small daughters, 37-year-old Joe Carpenter, formerly the ace crime reporter for a Los Angeles tabloid but currently an unemployed depressive, finds a middle-aged woman taking Polaroid pictures of his family’s graves. She hints to Carpenter that she can put him in touch with his deceased loved ones. But when a white Ford van full of murderous thugs comes screeching into the cemetery, she takes off running and disappears. Carpenter becomes convinced that the mystery woman is Rose Tucker, a geneticist who was supposed to have died along with his family on board Flight 353. How could she alone have survived an annihilating crash in the Colorado wilderness that killed more than 300 other passengers? And why would a scientist suddenly behave like a spiritualist, promising proof of life after death? And who is so eagerly trying to assassinate her now? All of the tantalizing questions that Koontz introduces throughout the first part of Sole Survivor make its slack pacing and wooden dialogue almost tolerable.
But your tolerance and patience are sorely tested when the cliches reach critical mass (”Human beings…were different from apples and oranges: The flavor of the peel did not reliably predict the taste of the pulp”), and the solution to the novel’s mysteries depends on the kind of ”way cool but goofy” pseudoscience found in superhero comic books.
Unconvincing, slow, and talky, Koontz’s latest is also strewn, maddeningly, with technophobic kvetching and New Age grousing. ”The days of common trust and common sense,” he writes, ”were so far in America’s past that they seemed not merely to be ancient history but to be part of the history of another country altogether.” The days of rationally structured and carefully written thrillers might also be past, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
Slow down, Dean. Slow down.