Thursday, May 19, 2016

Fiction Review: Life Expectancy

I recently joined an online book group for people with my chronic illness (ME/CFS). Not that I need another book group in my life, but I couldn’t resist – I just love talking about the books I read with other readers! Their first choice after I joined was Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz. This was excellent timing, since we just inherited my dad’s extensive Stephen King and Dean Koontz collection (we both loved sharing books with him), and this one was among the group. Before you write this book off, saying, “I don’t read Koontz,” you should know that this novel is not horror. Like Stephen King, Koontz actually writes a variety of different kinds of novels, and this one is an odd but entertaining combination of humor and suspense.

The story opens in 1974, in a small town hospital in Colorado on a stormy night, as Jimmy Tock is being born. His father, Rudy, splits his time between the maternity ward and the ICU, where his father is dying after a devastating stroke. During one of his visits to the ICU, Rudy is astounded when his father, who hasn’t spoken in days, suddenly sits up in his bed and very clearly shouts out five dates, telling his son to write them down because they will be five terrible days in his newborn son’s life (Rudy wasn’t even aware he was having a son yet).

Back in the maternity waiting room, a strange and horrible companion waits with Rudy, a clown from the visiting circus named Konrad Beezo. While Beezo’s wife is also giving birth, he waits in the expectant fathers’ room, ranting and raving about the evil aerialists who are his in-laws. Frightened by the paranoid, angry clown (in full make-up), Rudy tries to appease him and not upset him any more, which Beezo takes as agreement and support.

The night ends in a terrible tragedy, which results in Beezo carrying a vendetta against the hospital, and his warped perception that Rudy Tock has supported and saved him. The story then follows the Tock family through those five important dates in Jimmy’s life. They take his grandfather’s predictions very seriously because he correctly predicted Jimmy’s exact time of birth, weight, and even the name that Rudy and his wife had kept secret. Rudy works as a baker, so the entire family keeps odd hours, but they are a kind and loving family, and Jimmy grows up also learning to be a baker.

The novel has a new section for each of the dates when something “terrible” has been predicted in Jimmy’s life, and the Tock family ends up crossing paths with the Beezo family again and again. The novel is narrated by Jimmy, and he says at the very beginning that the first four dates have passed, so we know that he survives those days, but not whether he will survive the fifth and final date. In addition, neither the Tock family nor the reader knows exactly what will happen on each date, so it is hard to prepare.

This book works on two levels. It is a fast-paced thriller with plenty of suspense, but it is also very, very funny, with a keen sense of irony and an appreciation for the absurd. The bad guys here are – literally – killer clowns (if you have a clown phobia, it’s probably best to stay away from this novel!), so there is humor and absurdity built right into the story from its first pages. The Tock family, despite the shadow hanging over their lives, is a happy, convivial group with a great sense of humor, so their banter alone is constantly amusing.

Many people will be surprised to discover that Koontz’s novels aren’t always horror, but I also thoroughly enjoyed his mystical, wonder-filled novel Breathless, which I highly recommend as a first toe dip into Koontz’s non-horror work. As for Life Expectancy, it is a page-turner with plenty of nail-biting suspense (and, yes, some violence) but will also make you laugh out loud. It is a clever, hilarious, fast-paced thriller that defies easy categorization. I enjoyed it very much and can’t wait to read more of my dad’s collection of Koontz novels.

401 pages, Bantam Books

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