Thursday, January 3, 2013

An Odd and most-endearing protagonist

Odd Thomas mass market paperback cover, Dean Koontz
I've been reading Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas stories lately, supernatural thrillers with an unusual twist. Generally speaking, I'm not interested in supernatural or paranormal stories, but I like Odd Thomas, the protagonist who sees dead people and bodachs (dark, wispy spirits who sniff out violent death before it occurs), and who can track soon-to-be mass murderers using something he calls psychic magnetism. What I like about Odd is the fact that he is, in many ways, quite an ordinary young fellow, but one with a great sense of responsibility for his fellow man. Although his strange "gift" is obviously a burden to him, he does not complain or whine about it (or about anything else), but regards it as a talent he has been given for the good of others.
 
Nonetheless, he does not use it to become a sort of paranormal hero, going around seeking out evil to foil it before it happens. He knows, instinctively, that he needs to balance his peculiar gift with a perfectly ordinary life, one that is quite dull compared to the situations into which his unique abilities draw him. He has no personal ambition, other than to live a long and happily uneventful life with his girlfriend, Stormy Llewellyn; he is blissfully happy as a fry cook at a small-town diner and, on those rare occasions that he does consider a job change, his top picks are working in a tire store or shoe shop. Of course, a man with his God-given gift is doomed to a life much more eventful and challenging than the one to which he aspires.
The Odd Thomas stories are told from a first person perspective, memoirs that Odd has been urged to write by a successful novelist friend of his, Little Ozzie, who discovered Odd's writing talent when he judged a local high school writing competition and picked Odd Thomas's work as the clear winner. Since then Little Ozzie has become a confidant and mentor to Odd, one of a few intimate friends aware of Odd's supernatural gifts, and he urges him to write his memoirs (to be published only after his death) as a kind of therapy to work through the stress and strain of his burdensome life.
"Give the narrative a lighter tone than you think it deserves, dear boy, lighter than you think that you can bear to give it," he instructed before I began to write, "because you won't find the truth of life in morbidity, only in hope."
Odd succeeds admirably in obeying this injunction, and tells his tales quite humorously, in a self-deprecating way. Young Odd (twenty years old in the first novel of the series) is quite an endearing character, never completely overwhelmed by the evil he confronts because he, like his mentor Little Ozzie, finds the truth of life in hope. He relishes the goodness in the world, despite all the evil. And, although there is always a supernatural element in the stories, the evil always comes from the depths of the human heart, rather than from some supernatural malevolence (although that may be lurking in the background, unseen). Odd's difficult upbringing has made him sensitive to the hidden goodness in people who may not think themselves good, who may, in fact, have been treated badly for so long that they believe they deserve to be treated badly. Living or dead, he wishes them well, and tries to do them good.

When the silent dead appear to Odd (silent, but as warm and tangible as the living), it is often because they need his help to let go of life and pass on to the next thing, for better or for worse. These forlorn souls may have died through violence -- in which case Odd helps discover their killer -- or illness, but they linger not so much out of a desire to cling to a life that is no longer theirs as to avoid what they expect to be a painful and dismal eternity. Odd finds that what holds them in the land of the living is not desire for revenge (a staple of many ghost stories) but, quite often, an ill-founded sense of guilt; in these cases, Odd reassures them, urging them to believe that their loved ones do not blame them for their faults and that eternity holds the possibility not only of punishment, but of mercy.

Dean Koontz quotation "Pain is a gift"

Odd obviously regards his "gift" as God-given. He may not be overtly religious (although his girlfriend is the niece of the local Catholic priest, and the bell tower of the parish church is one of their favorite picnic spots), but the writer, Dean Koontz, is a sincere Catholic and it is clear that he conceives the lingering spirits to be those destined for Heaven, but not yet willing to believe it. Part of their purgatory is to reach the point where they can truly accept the goodness of God and believe that He really has forgiven their sin; these Odd tries to reassure, and eventually he succeeds. Another part of these bereft souls' transition into eternity is their opportunity to do good for those they've left behind, by helping Odd Thomas to expose their killers and see them brought to justice so that they cannot hurt anyone else.

Odd Thomas himself is not immune to suffering or to a sense of personal guilt; in fact, his patient suffering is one of his most appealing attributes. Over the course of the novels, he is morally perfected through his suffering -- at least, that is Koontz's plan (the series is not yet finished). As he successively (and successfully) confronts more and more evil, Odd seems to become sweeter and sweeter, ever humbler, more perfectly resigned to his burdensome task in life. At the same time, he grows to savor the goodness of life ever more deeply. This deepening of his love for the living (and the dead) makes him stand out from other protagonists of supernatural thrillers, like a candle flame in a dark room. He truly is odd, but in the best possible way.

Learn more about author Dean Koontz and the influence of his Catholic faith on his writing in this video of an interview with Raymond Arroyo, from his TV show, The World Over, on EWTN.

3 comments:

  1. I really need to read Koontz. Years ago a friend of mine was telling me about the Odd Thomas stories, urging me to read them, and I'd made a mental note to consider them, though they didn't really sound like my cup of tea, either -- the obsessive reader of Barbara Pym does not intuitively greet the supernatural tale with recognition and welcome. And then I sort of forgot the mental note. But now I'm remembering it. Thanks for the thoughtful reminder.

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    1. My impression of Koontz, until I saw the interview with R. Arroyo, was that he was sort of a Stephen King alternative for readers of horror fiction. I had never come close to reading one of his books. Then I noticed that James Scott Bell cited Koontz several times in Write Great Fiction - Plot & Structure, as having great novelistic technique, so I began to think, "Hmm, maybe I'll find a cheap paperback of something he's written and take a look." A couple of days later, a friend sent me a link to the Arroyo interview, and I knew I had to read this guy, at least his Odd Thomas stories, and I quickly downloaded a Kindle book from the local public library. It was only part 2 of Odd Interlude (which was published in three segments), but it got me hooked. The first full-length Odd Thomas I read was Brother Odd, which takes place at a secluded monastery -- really good.

      I think even Barbara Pym would like Odd Thomas. He's such a sweet, polite young man.

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  2. Well, yeah, exactly -- I thought of Koontz as another Stephen King, also totally not my cup of tea, though another friend had been trying to get me to read The Stand for years and years. So I was surprised by the "you must read this Catholic author" thing.

    Actually I think Babara Pym liked *oddness*. I think she was profoundly skeptical about the possibility of human goodness -- certainly about the possibility of human happiness. For all her tea parties and jumble sales and vicars and apparent fluff she's really in many ways a cynical writer, in the culture, emotional, and spiritual rubble of a postwar England. Her novels would like to believe in goodness and order and things working out in the manner of Jane Austen, to whom she's often compared, but instead they read like little failures of faith, with even love as something settled for, because it's better than nothing. Interestingly, her characters often actively envy the Catholics who cross their paths, and who seem to have something that the Anglican protagonists don't, but which the protagonists view as off-limits to them. So if Odd Thomas were to appear in a Pym novel, everyone would sort of sigh, wishing that this level of goodness and redemption were on offer to them, but would conclude that that was utterly impossible and go back to their stewed tea.

    So, there you go. My rendition of Barbara-Meets-Odd-Thomas . . . and I'll now have to go read the books!

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