When you prick a journalist, does he not bleed? Well, no, he doesn't. (We don't have what you humans call ''blood.'') But he does write nasty things about you. Which is what I was poised to do when I read this passage from Dean Koontz's 41st novel, The Face: ''...[A] reporter from Entertainment Weekly, using the wrong end of a pencil, would be taking notes.... When the story hit print, every fact would be wrong....''
''Cruel Koontz!'' I cried, shaking my tiny eraser at the sky. But then I realized I was in the hands of a master satirist -- and, as any Weird Al victim can attest, it's an honor to be satirized. ''The Face,'' you see, is a MOCK thriller, an unsparingly self-aware spoof on the sins of a diminished genre, from a guy who ought to know, having committed them all. Metatextual bravery, thy name is Koontz!
Like a modern Swift, he devises brilliantly silly names for deliberately half-baked characters: The villain, for example, is one Vladimir ''Corky'' Laputa, a bloodthirsty English professor-cum-anarchist who dabbles in every dastardly deed, from murder to graffiti to nontraditional approaches to literature. Corky plans to assault the Bel-Air manse of vapid superstar Channing ''The Face'' Manheim. But first he'll have to bypass Ethan Truman, Manheim's brooding security chief and Koontz's subversively bland White Hat. With wicked irony, the author tosses some otherworldliness into the mix, filling out the pap trinity of Guns, Goons, and God (no Girls, though, presumably to highlight the homoeroticism latent in ''manly'' potboilers).
Sharpening his deconstructive shiv, Koontz leaves no cliché unturned, no hackery unhackneyed, no boulevard anxiety unexploited. Corky, for example, is so clearly an absurdist reactionary scarecrow -- the academic as Godless, tweed-swaddled mullah, working to spoil things for Just Plain Folks -- we can't help but laugh at pulp's cheap demagoguery and our susceptibility to it.
Koontz must have been laughing too when he slyly adopted the old ''dark and stormy night'' backdrop -- the ENTIRE STORY takes place under a biblical deluge -- with a post-Sept. 11 twist. ''With snuffle, growl, and keening petition, the wolfish wind begged entry,'' he goofs. ''Across the fabled city rolled a low protracted rumble.'' That's comic gold on its own -- but Koontz keeps pushing: ''[Hearing the thunder,] Ethan...had envisioned a terrorist attack somewhere, women and babies murdered by the fascistic Islamic radicals who fed on wickedness and crawled the modern world with demon determination.'' The narrator sputters like a bunkered survivalist whose only contact with the world is the occasional Reader's Digest shoved under the portcullis.
But Koontz isn't just exposing his genre's paranoid populism. He's out to prune its familiar outer flourishes, too: the black pal with whom the white hero swaps genial YOU DA MAN's; the plucky, precocious kid; and, of course, the shameless plundering of popular cinema -- a ''Panic Room'' asthma attack here, a ''Pulp Fiction'' one-liner there.
''The Face'' is at its tangy best when Koontz pokes holes in his trademark pseudospirituality. At one point, he goes so far as to describe the risk of star-69-ing a call from the Hereafter: ''Star sixty-nine might connect you with a place you must not go.... The dark eternity,'' a netherworld phone buddy warns. ''When you press star sixty-nine, you open a door to them.... Do we need to speak their sulfurous name?''
No, we don't. The air is sulfurous enough with the pungent irreverence of grade-A self-parody. Imagine if Koontz had been serious! Then I might have had to turn this pencil around and write some very nasty things.