Picture this: An exceedingly pregnant book columnist, whose column happens to be due on the same day as the baby, picks up Stephen King's latest, The Dark Half (Viking: $21.95; 431 pp.) and begins to read. His latest bloodsoaked conceit? The hapless hero of King's new, $1.5- million press run blockbuster is tormented writer Thad Beaumont--who, while inside his mother's womb, gobbled up most, but not all, of his twin brother, leaving just enough undigested body parts lodged in Thad's brain to make his adult life holy hell. The columnist shudders in horror--or was that a contraction?
So let us speak, this month, of the fiction of paranoia, while I consult my ultrasound print-out for reassurance and chant, it's fiction, it's fiction, it's fiction.
Paranoia is, as the dictionary reminds us, a projection of an internal conflict, and King has himself a whopper. He seems to hate himself for churning out one slam-bang tale of terror after another--all the way to the bank, as our grandmothers used to say. He's not about to stop writing lucrative shockers, but in "The Dark Half," as in his last book, "Misery," he loads his hero with a near-fatal dose of literary ambition. Thad Beaumont, who writes Kingian scarers under the pseudonym George Stark, wants to write quality fiction, but when he tries he finds that Stark turns out to be more than a mere pen name: He is Beaumont's most potent creation, quite literally hatched in Beaumont's brain, who becomes locked in mortal combat with his creator over just what kind of prose Beaumont is going to produce.
The notion that someone like King is possessed by a bad attitude that forces him to write what he writes is a convenient one; it does absolve him of any responsibility. But one more novel about a tortured artiste and he'll officially be in a rut. He might consider putting his multimillions where his mouth is. Go ahead and write the small, literary work of art, Stephen. Or is that even scarier than the demons you dream up?
A more mundane source of paranoia--and, therefore, an even more fearsome one--is the airplane. Stephen Greenleaf gives us, in Impact (William Morrow : $19.95; 393 pp.), an air crash litigation novel that allows the reader to indulge his distrust both of big metal birds and overpriced attorneys in a neurotic two-for-one deal. Californians will be particularly chilled by the story, since the crash involves a Los Angeles to San Francisco commuter plane that goes down--killing almost everyone but Jack Donohue, who happens to be traveling with his lover, the sister-in-law of a lawyer who happens, in turn, to be sleeping with Jack's wife. Jack survives, but barely.
Said lawyer, Keith Tollison, takes Jack-the-vegetable's case, and from there on it's pure soap opera. Will Laura leave Jack for Keith? Will Keith's wife Brenda wreck his case? Will Keith and his law school chum Alec come to terms with their mid-life crises? And will the author ever stop marveling over Alec's partner Martha, that vivid concoction of the male mind, half hard-bitten lawyer and half sadistic love goddess? Only one bit of advice to the reader: No matter how much you care about the outcome of these plot threads, do not, under any circumstances, take this book on an airplane with you.
The Minotaur by Stephen Coonts (Doubleday: $19.95; 448 pp.) is a safe choice, since it's about a plane that few of us will ever get to ride in--a stealth bomber, the object of a Soviet spy mission that Coonts' serial hero, Jake Garston, is supposed to thwart. Garston, who almost died in a plane crash at the end of Coonts' last novel, is back in uniform, minus a few memory cells perhaps, but ready to do what he can for his country. He's surrounded by all the usual players: a brash sidekick, the brash sidekick's sexy pilot girlfriend, the disaffected lout turned greedy spy, the requisite double agents, and, of course, the corrupt high government official.
Ex-combat pilot Coonts is most at home in the cockpit, though; some of the subplots, particularly the domestic ones, are forced interruptions in the author's flight plan. "The Minotaur" is meant for readers whose favorite war was the Cold one, soul mates of George C. Scott's Buck Turgidson in "Dr. Strangelove," who think the only good Russki is a dead Russki.