- Odd Hours
- Bantam, 368 pp.
The Quest of Odd Thomas
Ogres are like onions, the great philosopher Shrek once said. Onions have layers, ogres have layers.
And, one might add in an irrational syllogism, ogres and onions are a lot like Odd Hours by Dean Koontz.
On the ogreish face of things, Odd Hours is a thriller, the fourth in Koontz’s tales of Odd Thomas. Narrated by Odd himself, the book covers the battle that he wages with bad guys wishing to wreak havoc on the free world. Acting to save the life of a mysterious young woman named Annamaria, he dodges death and a hazardous pile of ever-increasing bodies while the clock ticks down to the finale.
Except that the clocks don’t tick at all, they’ve all been stopped. Nor is Odd always successful in avoiding the bodies, since, as they say, he sees dead people. Sometimes, in fact, he even goes right through them. That’s when he’s not, of course, being psychically drawn to help those in peril.
Odd Hours, then, is not your conventional thriller, though Koontz gives you leave to read it that way if violent ogres are your thing.
But if you want to start peeling back the layers of text – and let’s face it, every reviewer loves to peel – you’ll find a whole lot of surprises underneath.
For this book, amidst the chases and gunfire, is also a kinetic comedy. Part monkey, part hapless Chaplin, Koontz’s Odd is most of all an ironist, mocking the conventions of a thriller even as he builds it.
I’m not a hero, he tells us. I’m a former fry cook with a penchant for tongue in cheek references to popular culture, extended soliloquies, and a hankering for Shakespeare:
I’m a half-assed champion of the imperiled innocent: able to see the lingering dead, but unable to hear what of value they might wish to tell me; informed by predictive dreams that never provide me with sufficient detail to be certain of what they predict, of when the event will occur, or of where the horror will go down; without gun or sword, armored only with cookies.
Nor is he, he repeatedly tells us, invincible. Indeed, almost every time we expect him to slap a big “S” on his chest and leap tall buildings, he falls flat on his face:
During the evening, I had developed considerable admiration for Matt Damon. In spite of his amnesia and in spite of being opposed by numerous nefarious government goons with infinite resources at their command, he waded through squads of ruthless assassins, killing them or sometimes letting them live but making them wish they had never dedicated themselves to fascist ideologies, and he just kept going, indomitable and undiminished.
Here I was, a pathetic excuse for a paladin, complaining about exhaustion when I had not yet even been through a car crash. Already, Matt Damon would have been through six.
Once you’ve finished laughing at Odd’s bumbling, however, you might be tempted to start peeling again, down into the hyperreality that Koontz is creating.
Though the California setting and ubiquitous guns may feel familiar, Odd’s mention of the Bard (never mind the hilarious presence of a peeved Frank Sinatra) is enough to signal to readers that this is a story set in an alternate universe.
We are in Macbeth land, in Lear land, in a land where a mysterious fog can help or hinder as it sees fit, where Hecate’s Canyon is filled with coyotes and a character might be much more than they appear.
Like the knights of Spenser and Cervantes and even J.K. Rowling, Odd pursues his quest waving a heraldic banner amidst the glades of allegory – only this time he’s wearing an old Wyvern sweatshirt in a glade that bears the distinct traces of suburban sprawl.
So it behooves us to pay attention when we begin to meet the other characters. Representing evil, for example, is Utgard, a large fellow with yellow eyes who bears the name of the Norse giant Utgard-Loki and behaves just as badly.
More tentatively we might see a little of Boss Hogg from the Dukes of Hazzard or Sheriff Hackett from the old western Fighting Bill Fargo in the figure of Hoss Shackett, the smiling sadistic police officer.
As it is for evil, so it is for good. Without the presence at key moments of the ghostly dog Boo and a more tangible golden retriever nicknamed Raphael, Odd Thomas would be in deep, well, you know. While Koontz’s tribute to Harper Lee doesn’t hang around, Raphael is more persistent. Perhaps he, like the angel Raphael and the dog in apocryphal story of Tobias, feels like Odd could do with the help in the future. Plus while Odd may protest at the moniker of hero, he spends much of his time saving a pregnant maiden whose name is a combination of a famous biblical mother and daughter. Similarly, the competent women who come to his aid – Blossom, Birdie – represent the natural innocence that Odd Thomas finds apocalyptically threatened.
A reader could get lost in the labyrinth of allusions and turn to bleached bone playing the guessing game, but in one respect Koontz is explicit. Odd may be a knight, but he is also Macbeth or Coriolanus, with a thriving sense of ambivalence about his actions. Here’s what he says when Annamaria presents him with a talismanic bell charm:
I said, “‘The bell invites me…it is a knell that summons me to Heaven or to Hell.'”
Annamaria calls him on the misquotation, for in Macbeth it is Duncan who is being summoned, but you can see Koontz’s point. With every step Odd takes towards saving the world, he is risking his immortal soul by disposing of the people in the way. During one particular harrowing scene he finds himself at a sink:
After a while, I realized that I was washing my hands. Evidently, I had washed them several times. The water was so hot that my hands were bright red.
Out, out, damn spot indeed.
And if all this was not enough – the allusions and quotations, the comedy, the thrills and spills, the fuzzy mythological quest – we find beneath the litters of peelings yet another layer, both literary and philosophic.
This is Koontz as stylist, the lover of a metaphor – “a thousand slowly pulsing moth wings of fog” – and the reflector on life’s deep, deep meanings:
The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you share sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can’t get off your knees for a long time, you’re driven to your knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss.
What does the reviewer, after massaging his/her own literary ego for a time, make of all of this?
Well, we make of it what we will. If we are vexed one day by the meanderings that slow the pace of the conventional thriller down, we might just as easily be irresistibly charmed the next by Odd’s poetic and frenetic flights of fancy.
Are we wholly committed to the symbolic characters? Are we persuaded that the melodramatic threat to Odd’s world is real? Maybe not entirely, but then again, Odd’s world is very unreal and entirely original.
Yet, we are still left wondering. Is there a Nessie lurking in literary waters? First there was Odd, then Kasper in Peter Høeg’s The Quiet Girl. Literary thrillers are not new, but reluctant heroes with strange gifts living in alternate hyperrealities – now that’s an interesting coincidence.
Perhaps an unsurprising one, though. Bursts of violence interspersed with an uneasy, sometimes almost pharmaceutically influenced, vision of modern life somehow seems appropriate for our age.
One step removed from reality by media and mired in conflicts with no big bad wolf to vilify, we already inhabit the gray zone. Our superheroes are fallen, our fairytales are dark as Grimms’, our dreams of the future are laced with catastrophes of our own making.
So we look to Odd and Kasper and Harry and that slightly creepy kid from The Sixth Sense to save us from ourselves. We ask authors to reassure us that there is something – love, magic, faith, hope – that can still exist when we’re all embedded with microchips and having our DNA tweaked.
Let’s hope that Odd is ready with his cookies when that time comes. He has his work cut out for him.