The Google, with its beautiful imperfection, informs me that anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of all new books are bought in airports. Last week, I was in Salt Lake City International Airport (they have one daily flight to Paris, hence: International) and I decided to see what air travelers are reading.


A Waldenbooks-sized store named Simply Books seemed like a decent place to begin. By the register, a tall man was asking a middle-aged employee for help. "I like Stephen King," he said. "Do you have any Stephen King books? Best book I ever read was a Stephen King book." Unfortunately, Tall Man had read all the Stephen Kings that Simply Books had to offer.

"We have Water the Elephants," the bookseller said, holding up a copy of Sara Gruen's embarrassingly sentimental Water for Elephants. "That by Stephen King?" asked Tall Man. "No." "Hm," he said, and stalked off. I approached the bookseller and asked for a recommendation.

She apologized immediately by saying, "I'm not much of a reader," and then she handed me David Baldacci's newest mystery. But his books are like making love to a cardboard cutout of a woman. She tried to get me to read Patricia Cornwell's latest, but Cornwell's main character, Kay Scarpetta, became crushingly dull 12 books ago. She told me that Eric Clapton's autobiography was selling up a storm, but I feared it'd be like listening to a 15-hour-long "Tears in Heaven."

I wound up with Whitley Strieber's 2012, a thriller based on the ancient Mayan prophecy that the world will end in 2012. Michael Bay's adapting it into a movie, and the bland characters and mindless action will no doubt translate brilliantly to Bay's Cinema Idiotíque. It'll probably set off a mini-Y2K craze: Invest in canned goods and bottled water now.

Strieber is a fifth-rate Dean Koontz, who, of course, is a bargain-basement Stephen King, and King's a pale shadow of Ira Levin, who passed away November 12. Levin's The Stepford Wives, Sliver, The Boys from Brazil, and Rosemary's Baby are perfect little engines of plot. He wrote fables of paranoia that behaved like airplane thrillers, and every one was great fun to read.

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Levin's obituaries all pointed out that he's not a prose stylist, but that's unfair to the man's imagination. His direct, punchy sentences keep characters racing to the climax in a believable, and sometimes sadistically funny, fashion. Levin is an irreplaceable master; for proof, look no further than the sad state of contemporary airport fiction. recommended

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