Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dean Koontz's coming-of-age saga

The City

By Dean Koontz

Publisher: Bantam 

Pub. Date: July 1, 2014

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Dean Koontz’s The City will probably not be well received by his hoard of fans. Koontz has established a very popular niche in the mainstream sci fi/supernatural thriller genre. From the appearance of Watchers and on, it can be argued that he practically invented the sub-genre. There is no doubt Dean Koontz is a talented and imaginative writer but many readers, myself included, came to feel he was writing a formula and sometimes a very tired one at that. But it seemed to be what his regular readers wanted and it is hard to fault any author for writing to their base.

However in his new novel The City, we see something different. Here is a novel by Koontz that unfolds a wider tableau. He places his tale in a lower middle class, racially integrated portion of a city in the 60s. It is for the most part, a coming-of-age story about an African-American boy growing up in the city with his mother, his grandfather and an often absent, morally challenged father. There are some very nice scenes of interaction between his family and his friends. The author outdoes himself in bringing alive a number of major and minor characters with all the subtleties and personal touches you would want. I especially enjoyed his characterization of Mr. Yoshioka, an elderly survivor of Manzanar with his own tragic history, who plays a combination of mentor and detective sidekick to our young hero Jonah. The book has the sense of a nostalgia piece. Koontz writes of the 60s with care and longing. He sees the urban scene of the 60s as dynamic but less forbidding and slightly less dangerous than that the cities of the 21st century. There are plenty of cultural references that help in setting the atmosphere. The novel starts out as an intriguing look at a boy who is perhaps growing up too soon in an environment that is changing for the worse. Using the first person narrative of a 10 year old boy works here, even if that boy sometimes seems a little too wise for his years. There is a nice balance of security and danger throughout which Jonah sums up nicely in the statement, “Maybe the difference between horror and holiday was just the width of an ordinary street.”

Yet this is Koontz, meaning the supernatural is never too far behind. Early on, Jonah gets a visit for a woman who calls herself Ms. Pearl. We find out that she is the physical embodiment of “The City”. What that means is part of what makes this tale different and interesting. She has taken a liking to Jonah and wants to help him but, in the tradition of classic modern fantasy, not too much and never directly. There is a sense in the book that Jonah is passing from the magic of childhood where Juju and spirits exists and into a world of responsibility and loss

So as you can see, this is a different Dean Koontz than the one we are used to. Yet soon Koontz starts to hedge his bets. A menace developed that never really feels realistic. Jonah’s father is part of that menace but he is also the most unrealistic character in the novel. We never really know what makes him tick and his actions seems confused and artificial. The most villainous person is knife toting Eve Adams/ Fiona Cassidy who never becomes more than a cardboard cutout, a disappointment considering how good Koontz usually is at writing villains. While Jonah’s narration is part of the charm of this book, we partially lose it in the second half as we begin to rely on second hand accounts, primarily Mr. Yoshioka’s, to fill in the portion that is supposed to heighten the tension. When the two merges into a climatic finish it feels a bit arbitrary and predictable even if our heartstrings are tugged a bit.

It is a little hard to see where Koontz meant to go with this. The combination coming-of-age / period piece he starts with is apt to scare away his regulars. But his addition of a supernatural aspect, magic realism if you can call it that, and a criminal plot doesn’t add to the more ambitious drama he set out. The one thing that I think most will agree on, and paradoxically the most frustrating, is that this is the best writing Koontz has exhibited in years and maybe decades. There are some rhapsodic passages throughout and some amazingly moving scenes mainly around Jonah’s family and friends. I am somewhat torn since it is counts as one of Koontz’s most ambitious works and could have been one time where he could have escaped from the formula. But in the end, formula wins out over a still entertaining and insightful work.

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