Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Or, how Andrew Vachss’ Burke helped me realize why I dislike Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas so much.
I didn’t know why I disliked Odd Thomas so much, only that I really, really didn’t like this character, or the books that feature him, for that matter. I hadn’t read anything by Dean Koontz in years. More like in over a decade. For awhile in my teens and early twenties, I was binging on Koontz. I think Phantoms was his first novel I read, and something about it hooked me. I read everything I could, and over the course of a few years made my way through his entire bibliography (with a couple of exceptions). I have some fond memories of those books, but then I just stopped. I was reading King and Rice and Clancy (and Koontz) around that time, and then I’m happy to say (without any sense of conceit or elitism) that I transitioned to better writers. Gene Wolfe. Neal Stephenson. Frank Herbert. Kurt Vonnegut. Joseph Conrad. Others. I recently came back to Koontz and his recent creation Odd Thomas. I obtained several of these Odd-themed novels in audiobook format at the low low price of $0 COUGH-Thanks Demonoid-COUGH, and I started listening to them at work and during my commute.
I listened to Odd Thomas. I didn’t like it. I listened to Forever Odd. I liked it less. I listened to Brother Odd. I liked it so little, disliked it so much, I vowed not to spend another minute listening to the followup Odd Hours. I’ve seen banner ads around the interwebs for his latest, Odd Apocalypse. I have no intention of reading it. And while I knew my intense dislike for these novels (my first such reaction to Koontz’s work) centered on the protagonist Odd Thomas, I had difficulty forming a specific argument as to why.
Then I read Flood, the first novel in the Burke series by Andrew Vachss, mostly on the recommendation of fellow CC2Ker Tony Lazlo. And my feelings toward Odd Thomas crystallized into a beautiful snowflake of disdain.
He’s too Perfect, AKA The Tebow Effect
I dislike Odd Thomas even more than I dislike Tim Tebow, which is A LOT. I would go so far as to say that I hate Tim Tebow, and I would be the first to admit that this is irrational, and I’m taking it too far. I don’t care. Simply put, I think the person Tebow presents to the public and gets celebrated by the media is a 50-gallon drum full of horse shit. No one is that perfect, without skeletons in their closet or flaws in their character. I wouldn’t buy that “Aww shucks I just wanna give all glory to God and Jesus my Almighty Savior by playing the gosh-darn best football I can play” dog & pony show for a $1. But here’s the thing, I can hold onto this assertion more fervently than a Christian holds onto the erroneous belief that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Granted, I’d have an open-enough mind to change my position if presented with enough evidence. FEEL FREE TO TELL ESPN’S STUART SCOTT ALL ABOUT THE DRUG AND ALCOHOL USE AND FORCED ABORTIONS YOU MADE ALL THOSE COEDS GET AND COVERED UP TO PRESERVE YOUR PRECIOUS IMAGE. IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO, TIM.
Anyway, I can’t do that with Odd Thomas. He’s a fictional character that Koontz created. So when I’m informed that Odd really is that good-hearted, with such a good soul and decent nature, a guy who just can’t tell a lie, wouldn’t harm a fly, compelled to risk life and limb to see justice done, a young man who is all that and more, humble and loving and caring and the very ideal of the human condition, what we all should aspire to be, an inspiration to any who meet him…well I just can’t accept that. My internal bullshit detector sounds like a tornado siren. I can’t even love to hate him while I wait for him to fall, because I know he won’t. I have no choice to but accept his characterization; he is all of those things because Koontz made him that way. Koontz has created one of the most unrealistic, least identifiable, unsympathetic character I’ve ever encountered in the written form.
There’s a reason so many people love Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds and even Burke. Granted, Burke is darker and grittier and not always the “lovable rogue,” but often the anti-heroes are so popular specifically because they are not squeaky clean boy scouts. They have flaws and weaknesses and sometimes break the rules. They exist in the Neutral Good-True Neutral-Chaotic Neutral region of the D&D alignment spectrum. We like them for this. We love them for this; they appeal to us precisely because they’re not representing perfection, some unattainable ideal that we as human beings rarely if ever reach. It’s often said in film making that the bad guys and villains get to have all the fun. So when the good guy is a little bit of a bad guy, when the hero is more anti-hero, like with Andrew Vachss’ Burke character, well then that is infinitely more appealing to me than Odd Thomas.
He’s too Gifted, AKA The Superman Effect
Actually, it pains me a little to associate a character I’m extremely fond of with one I dislike so much (I think you can tell who is who in that statement). And how many times did writers rely on Superman’s powers to advance plot? Don’t answer that question, I may not like the result.
So Odd Thomas has the “gift” of being able to see the “lingering dead” AKA dead people AKA ghosts. Essentially he’s the kid from The Sixth Sense. Odd’s adventures, and the stories that comprise the Odd Thomas novels, all stem from the hook that a dead spirit contacts Odd and gets his help in their “moving on,” which usually involves Odd having to solve their murder and stop the person that killed them; this is made all the more difficult due to the fact that, as Odd repeatedly informs us, “The dead don’t talk. I don’t know why.”. Additionally, Odd has other paranormal powers, chief among them enhanced intuition. We learn that Odd could, if he wanted, go to a casino and pick out a slot machine ready to pay out a big jackpot, or step up to a craps table and go on a prolonged hot streak with the dice, or go to his local convenience store and pick the winning numbers for the Mega Millions lottery. He could do all of these things and more and make himself independently wealthy. He could make and donate millions to his favorite charities, or give a bunch of it to his friends, or whatever he wanted. Certainly he could use it to live the life of isolation he keeps complaining about “needing”. But he doesn’t do any of those things. Why? Because, and this goes back to my first point, it would be cheating. It would feel too much like stealing. SEE HOW ROUGH I HAVE IT GUYS? I HAVE THESE POWERS, THESE GIFTS, AND I CAN’T USE THEM. WELL I COULD, BUT IT WOULD MAKE ME FEEL GUILTY. Oh boo fucking hoo.
But that’s not all. One aspect of his paranormally enhanced intuition that Odd doesn’t hesitate to use is something he calls “psychic magnetism”. Basically, it means Odd will almost never get lost, and if he just puts himself in the right frame of mind, he can find anyplace, anything, or anyone that he wants, regardless of where it/they may be hiding. The problem with this power is how lazy it makes Koontz’s storytelling. Odd is not a detective, and doesn’t really pretend to be a detective, but he’s often forced to do detective work to solve murders. Inevitably in the Odd Thomas books, after he’s done some half-assed investigative work and comes up empty (and the narrative shudders to a standstill), Odd just shrugs his shoulders and whips out the ‘ol “psychic magnetism” and ABRA CADABRA he’s back on the right track. Sheesh.
In addition to his paranormal powers, which also include being able to see demonic-spirit-things he calls “bodachs,” which are attracted to places/instances of extreme suffering/death and have no real purpose in the novels other than serving as an early warning system to tip off Odd that something terrible, i.e. a major plot development is going to happen and clue him into the who/what/when/where of it, he has been bestowed with a plethora of other gifts. These include an almost savant-like mastery as a fry cook with an unparalleled ability to make pancakes (something he is inordinately proud of), a talent for hypnotizing people (that he never uses, but learned from a “magician friend”), and the potential to be a “great” writer.
Look, I like to think I’m a decent writer, but I know I don’t have the chops to do this professionally. I’m a pretty good cook, but there is NO WAY I could survive in a restaurant kitchen or do anything but fail EPICALLY on a show like Chopped. I can make it down a mountain on a snowboard (most of the time), and every once in awhile I can hit a golf ball relatively straight, but I’m firmly planted in “amateur” land. I think I’m a pretty good scientist, no Bruce Banner or Reed Richards or Hank Pym, but I’m more than competent, and that’s because I’ve been doing science for more than a decade now. I better be good at it, or I’m in trouble.
Likewise, Burke is a bit older, and he’s good at what he does, knowledgeable and skilled in what he knows. This is pretty much restricted to various types of crime and cons, and generally knowing how to survive in the dangerous streets of New York City in the 1980’s. These were not gifts he was born with; these are things he learned, sometimes the hard way. He is a man with experience, good at what he does, but not able to do everything. I like that. It reminds me a bit of myself. More than that, it seems realistic. It allows me to believe in the stories Vachss tells, the world Burke inhabits. On the other hand, Odd Thomas has been gifted with various powers and abilities and skills as if Koontz were Zeus passing boons on to his favored son, and he masters them with seemingly no effort. And if that weren’t bad enough (it is), there is one ability in particular that I can’t stand.
He’s a Terrible Writer Despite Insistence to the Contrary, AKA The Milli Vanilli Effect
For those of you who don’t remember Milli Vanilli, allow me to give you a brief history lesson. Milli Vanilli was a pop music group comprised of two members, neither of which were named Milli nor Vanilli. Rob Pilatus & Fab Morvan burst onto the scene and quickly became one of the hottest groups of the late 80’s and early 90’s with hits such as “Girl You Know it’s True”, “Baby Don’t Forget My Number”, and Blame it on the Rain”. They won the Grammy for “Best New Artist” in 1990. Rob and Fab’s fall was as meteoric as their rise, when it was learned and revealed that they were chosen for their looks despite having terrible singing voices; they weren’t actually singing the lead vocals for their songs. They were lambasted by the media as a sham, a farce, imposters, frauds; they were targeted in multiple lawsuits, and their Grammy was revoked. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and it was ultimately proven that this charismatic duo were not what they were purported to be.
I feel the same way about the character Odd Thomas, particularly with respect to his “talent” as a writer. You see, one gimmick of the Odd Thomas novels is that Koontz is writing them as if Odd Thomas were writing them in the form of manuscripts that one day may be released and/or sold to the public of the fictional world Odd inhabits. This means that the Odd Thomas novels are narrated in the first-person by Odd, who is neither omniscient nor, at times, entirely reliable. More importantly, it means that Dean Koontz is writing them as Odd Thomas, and despite repeated insistence to the contrary, Odd is a shitty writer.
Setting aside for a moment that I don’t (or at least I didn’t used to) think Koontz is a shitty writer, certainly he’ll never be mistaken for a great writer of LITERATURE, but he’s a serviceable and successful novelist. Odd Thomas, however, is undeniably a shitty writer. But we are told again and again that he’s a great writer, or at the very least, that he has a gift and the potential to be a great writer. Worse still, most of this praise comes in the form of minor character, friend, and sometimes father-figure to Odd, Little Ozzie. We are informed that Little Ozzie is a very successful novelist. When Odd was in high school (the extent of his education), he entered a writing contest that Little Ozzie judged. He awarded Odd the grand prize, and the two became friends. Odd visits Little Ozzie in just about every novel. One of Little Ozzie’s quirky character traits is that he randomly and frequently quotes lines and passages from famous works of LITERATURE. Odd proceeds to guess the author, and the running “joke” is that he always guesses Shakespeare, though this guess is only right one time out of every hundred or so. Odd reminds the reader in every manuscript he writes that he is doing so for two reasons. The first is that Little Ozzie believes writing about his experiences will be therapeutic, that it will help him to process, deal with, and find closure on his paranormal adventures. The second is as I mentioned before, that Ozzie is convinced Odd has a gift and a tremendous talent for writing that will be wasted if he doesn’t use it. We as readers are supposed to agree with Little Ozzie, because he obviously knows great writing when he sees it. Besides being a successful novelist in his own right, he’s constantly quoting great works of LITERATURE from memory, so clearly he knows what he’s talking about, right?
EXCEPT THAT HE’S A FICTIONAL CHARACTER KOONTZ MADE UP SO HIS “EXPERT” OPINION DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING.
The thing is, Odd doesn’t need to be a great writer. His writing ability doesn’t matter, it has absolutely nothing to do with the story. There is no reason to make Odd a great writer. But Koontz insists that Odd has this talent, beats us over the head with this knowledge, and then proceeds to utterly FAIL in actually demonstrating it, i.e. the Odd Thomas novels are pretty terrible when they should be fucking brilliant. The Odd Thomas novels as they currently exist would actually work better if Odd wasn’t “imbued” with this prodigious writing ability, if instead he admitted he was never any good at it, but he’s doing it as therapy. The novels are excerpts from his journal, and he never intends for anyone to read the contents. At least then you could forgive him (Koontz) for his piss poor writing style. At one point Odd actually breaks the fourth wall to directly address the reader (something he does repeatedly, mostly to spoon-feed us exposition), and talks about how Little Ozzie advised him to keep the tone of the manuscripts light and humorous, to offset the macabre events that transpire. Then he actually thanks God for seemingly granting his wish for the people that come into his life to be witty, because it makes this task all the easier, what with all the witty dialogue and humorous repartee he has with other characters. Are you fucking kidding me?
Ultimately, perhaps I’ve been looking at Koontz’s earlier novels through rose-colored glasses, nostalgia imbuing them with more quality than they are due. Maybe Koontz is suffering from George Lucas Syndrome, and he’s unable to see that he’s not as good as he once was. Whatever the case may be, I know this much. After reading Flood, Strega, and much of Blue Belle, Andrew Vachss is clearly the superior writer. The Odd Thomas novels read like bad fan fiction by comparison. A lot of people like fan fiction, I suppose. But then a lot of people like Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and Half Men. There’s no accounting for taste. But if you’re looking for a thrilling read with complex characters that explores the nature of good and evil in the real world, leave Odd Thomas to his ghosts, and spend some time with Andrew Vachss and his friend Burke.