"Prepare to be enchanted."
Those words appear on a card carried by pastry chef Jimmy Tock. The card was printed as the handbill for a circus, but its back now records the scribbled prophecy by his dying grandfather of five tragic days to come in Jimmy's life.
They also are as good an introduction to prospective readers of Dean Koontz's latest thriller, "Life Expectancy" as you could put into four words.
This is Koontz's third book in just under 12 months and his best in years. Koontz has been balancing his tone between fable ("The Face" mostly worked), social commentary ("False Memory" only occasionally lapsed into preachiness) and spiritual uplift ("One Door Away from Heaven" and "By the Light of the Moon" really bogged down with syrupy language).
In the past year, Koontz has self-edited himself well, however, returning to his concise style, with "Odd Thomas" (which put him back on track), and the terrific "The Taking," which ferociously put the gory back in allegory.
"Life Expectancy" is a neat balancing act of everything Koontz has experimented with over the past five years. It's witty, wise, spiritually significant and suspenseful.
The opening chapter is a grabber, setting the stage for the mix of offbeat humor, sudden violence and sacrificial heroism to come.
On a dark and stormy night, chef Rudy Tock paces the hospital waiting room as his father lies dying and his wife is in difficult labor. His only company is Konrad Beezo, a paranoid and raving circus clown who is also awaiting the birth of a child he has fathered with the daughter of Virgillio Vivacemente, a prominent and egomaniacal acrobat who refuses to acknowledge their marriage.
A moment before his daughter-in-law gives birth, the elder Tock sits up in bed and commands Rudy to write down five "dark days" the new baby must prepare himself for.
Meanwhile, when he learns his wife died in childbirth, Beezo goes on a murderous rampage in the hospital, killing every doctor or nurse he can find, sure that they are in league with the Vivacementes. He then spirits away his newborn son (whom he vows to name Punchinello) and disappears into the storm.
The Tocks narrowly escape with their lives and their baby. Jimmy, is born with fused fingers, which the family deals with in their characteristic humor, calling him "Flipper." Jimmy is a big boy and a bit of a clumsy lug, but he's as graceful as an acrobat when he is baking.
The Tocks are a loving, quirky family, but as the first predicted dark day approaches, they become understandably apprehensive and protective.
It surely won't be a surprise to any reader that the destinies of the Tocks and the Beezos will be inextricably linked or that the dark days each have to do with the reappearance of a Beezo in the life of Jimmy Tock.
To reveal the details, however, would be as much of a cheat as it would have been for Grandpa Tock himself to have elaborated more on what to expect.
Despite extended action scenes, sudden violence, madness and death, "Life Expectancy" is a life-affirming book. Koontz posits several questions: Would you live differently if you knew in advance when bad things were going to happen? Does the knowledge matter? Since they are going to happen, what have you done to prepare yourself spiritually for life's inevitable tragedies?
"Life Expectancy" is the story of people who can face death because they know what life is all about, who can stand up to hate because they embrace love and, most importantly, who can handle uncertainty in circumstance because of the certainty of their faith.
Like the double meaning in its title, readers of "Life Expectancy" can expect to gain valuable life lessons in what many might think is the book Koontz has spent the past five years trying to write.
Prepare to be enchanted.