Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, November 25, 2013

Monday, November 25, 2013: Maximum Shelf: Innocence

Random House: Innocence by Dean Koontz

Bantam Books: Innocence by Dean Koontz

Bantam Books: Innocence by Dean Koontz

Bantam Books: Innocence by Dean Koontz


by Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz knows exactly what story you'll be thinking about after the opening chapters of Innocence. His narrator-protagonist Addison Goodheart, a shunned outcast who lives alone deep below the city streets, comes up to the surface late one night and, making his way through the public library, catches sight of a haunting young woman fleeing an angry pursuer. Once the threat has passed, Addison figures out where she must be hiding and reaches out to her; she agrees to meet and talk with him. "I have no illusions about romance," he tells her during that first conversation. "Beauty and the Beast is a nice fairy tale, but fairy tales are for books."

Of course, Innocence is a book, and so ultimately there will be much of the fairy tale in Addison's account of how he becomes 18-year-old Gwyneth's companion--not so much her hero or protector as a bearer of witness. Gwyenth's father was murdered by the man who had stolen much of his fortune, the same man from whom she was running earlier (who has an even more sinister fate in mind for her). Addison tags along as she tries to find evidence of this villain's crimes--and stays with her as she scrambles to protect those closest to her from the inevitable attempts at revenge. He has fallen in love with her, and his devotion is absolute. "She would always be blameless," he tells us, "for I knew the purity of her heart."

Their relationship, however, is heavily circumscribed. She forbids him even the most fleeting of physical contact, while he buries his face in a hooded sweatshirt and a scarf lest she catch a glimpse of his face. As we learn from the periodic flashbacks, there's something in Addison's appearance that so disgusts others that anyone who sees him is overcome by a murderous impulse. Even the midwife who assisted at his birth wanted to strangle him, and though his mother saved his life on that occasion, after eight years living with him in the woods, she pushed him out into the world beyond their cabin. He makes his way to the unnamed city, where he finds another outcast, whom he calls Father, "but back then we needed no names because we spoke to no one but each other." Father was killed eight years ago, and until his encounter with Gwyneth, Addison has been painfully alone.

Addison and Gwyneth's city has an ethereal quality to it, and not just because of the blanket of snow that covers its streets. The novel's highly detailed scenes feel tenuously connected to each other the way disparate elements coalesce in dreams and, at times, Koontz's choices about where to invest specificity initially seem odd: Why, for example, do we need to know so much about the dead woman found in a koi pond years before Addison and Gwyneth meet, or the extended conversation between two priests Addison once overheard hiding in a cathedral? When our "real" world intrudes upon the storyline, whether in fleeting references to China and North Korea in a snippet of television news or an allusion to the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandals or the comparison of a winter street scene to a Thomas Kinkade painting, the dream-like atmosphere may be momentarily interrupted, though Addison's narration always serves to swiftly restore the mood.

Everything in Innocence is connected to everything else, it turns out, in ways that prove surprising. By the time we learn the truth about Addison's condition, so many of our initial assumptions have been upended it may feel as if we've been given a completely different book--that what started out as a fairy tale has become something much more allegorical.

Because of those unexpected elements, Innocence may require some readers to keep an even more open mind than usual. As in any allegorical tale, realism can take a back seat--Gwyneth, for example, frequently sounds nothing like any real-life 18-year-old girl, but her dialogue, along with other plot elements that could be interpreted as baroque or melodramatic, serve specific symbolic purposes. (To put it another way: Innocence absolutely is a baroque melodrama, and it works.) If you can't figure out why Koontz brings something into the story--like the "Clears," translucent beings who periodically appear to Addison floating around the city, wearing "soft-soled white shoes, loose pants with elastic waists, and shirts with three-quarter sleeves... as if they were dressed to staff the emergency rooms and surgeries at various hospitals"--give it time. Eventually, the subtexts will all be revealed.

For readers who primarily know Dean Koontz as a purveyor of horror, however, the results may be unexpected. Longtime fans may see in Addison Goodheart a refined spiritual cousin to earlier Koontz heroes like Slim Mackenzie, Jim Ironheart or Odd Thomas--and one who bears an ultimately hopeful message, at that. As a modern-day fairy tale, Innocence proves, in its own way, as inspiring as William P. Young's The Shack or Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven. --Ron Hogan

Bantam, $28, hardcover, 9780553808032, December 10, 2013

Bantam Books: Innocence by Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz: In the Zone

"Readers have often asked me how many ideas I get from dreams," Dean Koontz told us during a recent e-mail exchange, "and I've always said, 'None.' " Last year, however, he woke up in the middle of the night with a vividly detailed dream still in his mind. He was having lunch with the late Thomas Tryon--whom he hadn't known when the actor/novelist was alive--and they were celebrating Tryon's latest book, which was his biggest hit ever. "As we were talking about the book," Koontz recalls, "the scenes came alive in full color, like a dream within a dream. I woke with the central premise and key sequences firmly in mind. I loved the idea and couldn't wait to get to it." (After it was done, Koontz confided to a friend that he hoped that when he died and crossed over to the Other Side, Tryon and his attorneys wouldn't be waiting. "Don't worry," the friend replied, "there aren't any attorneys in Heaven." To which Koontz countered, "I didn't say Heaven.")

Without giving away too much of his secret, what drew you to telling a story about a character like Addison and the burden he bears?

A critic once said my main characters are nearly always outsiders in one way or another, and that's true. Books like By the Light of the Moon, One Door Away from Heaven and Fear Nothing are centered around characters with physical disabilities, while the leads in other books are often emotionally broken in one way or another and are in need of healing to be complete people. I'm not much interested in dashing adventurers or tough-as-nails PIs or swaggering mesomorphs in the Schwarzenegger mold. But give me a fry cook with a tortured past or a humble gardener whose wife is kidnapped, or someone like Addison with his unusual problem, and I'm off at a gallop.

Addison explicitly rejects "Beauty and the Beast" as a model for the story of his relationship with Gwyneth, but the tone and spirit of Innocence are clearly shaped by a fairytale-like atmosphere. What were some of the fairy tales that resonated most with you as you were writing this story?

Late in Innocence, Addison even says that if he had been writing this a few hundred years earlier, the characters might have been animals instead of people, by which he means that there is a quality of fable to his story. Chesterton said that the only worthwhile fiction is always at its root a fairy tale, and I know what he meant. There are no fairies or elves or creatures of a fairy tale in this book, yet it seeks that vividness and those archetypal characters that can move us in ways unexpected. I can't say I had any fairy tales in mind when I was working on it, but I did find myself rereading Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, and also the wonderful children's book author Kate DiCamillo.

How did you sort out how much of a presence the supernatural elements would play in the story, and how they would contrast with the more realistic thread of danger that builds as Addison follows Gwyneth on her mission?

There are some really bad people in this story, often from privileged strata of society. And at its core it's about power and how seductive power can be and how ruthlessly exercising power over others can lead nowhere good. When a novel has a supernatural element, it seems to me you have to make a considerable effort to ground the rest of the book in realistic and vivid detail, so that the whole thing doesn't just float away like a balloon. And when the supernatural comes in, it's better if it's like nothing you've read or seen before, if it is described in fresh language and doesn't make the reader think of all the standard tropes of supernatural fiction.

How did I sort it out? Did I sort it out? I don't know. I hope so. I think so. But so much of writing is intuitive, and in retrospect you can claim all kinds of clever intentions that you never had. It's easy to be pretentious about such things. But I'm answering these questions on a Monday, and my big day for pretension is usually Thursdays.

You've described how you can get "in the zone" when writing, and how it becomes almost a form of meditation or prayer. Did this story flow through you in that way?

Yes. Of all that I've written over the years, only a handful of books have come to me in what psychologists would call a "flow state" and athletes call being "in the zone." Watchers was one of those, and Odd Thomas. Life Expectancy and large parts of From the Corner of His Eye. And Innocence, from page one to the end.

It isn't that you write free of doubt and in a single draft. It's the usual 20 or more drafts a page before moving on to the next, and the doubt still brings you to the edge of despair some days. But there is no struggle about what comes next or where it's going or what it means. Bliss. It's not something you can make happen. It just does or doesn't. I'd give my right arm--well, maybe yours--if it happened with every book.

What have you been reading lately that you've really enjoyed?

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Her use of the language is exhilarating, and her command of character superb. At the End of An Age by John Lukacs, the historian, a wonderful book about the nature of historical and scientific knowledge. And I recently reread William Goldman's The Color of Light, which is a rollicking but dark event-packed novel about a novelist who takes too much to heart that old dictum "Write what you know," to the detriment of his career and his life. It's also about other mistakes we writers make. I've read it four or five times now, and each time I am certain that Mr. Goldman wrote it firmly in the Zone and had a great good time in the process. --Ron Hogan

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