Tuesday, July 20, 2010

So Cold The River - Michael Koryta

So Cold The River
Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company


Just a couple of years ago, Eric Shaw was on a career fast track in Hollywood. But one bad film can end a career, and now he’s back in Chicago, making a living by creating what he calls “video life portraits,” mostly for weddings or funerals. There’s no denying Eric has a unique eye for accuracy. He simply knows when a shot is important or correct, sometimes without knowing why. While making a ‘life of’ video for a woman’s funeral, he picks one photograph out of the stacks given to him by the family. It’s the only photo of a cottage, with no people in the frame. Somehow he knows that this place was important to the woman.

The woman’s sister, impressed and a little frightened by Eric’s insight, hires him to make a film about the early years of her now-dying father-in-law. According to family lore, Campbell Bradford left the small town of French Lick, Indiana, as a teenager and managed to make himself into a multimillionaire. The family knows almost nothing about his early life, and the daughter-in-law, Alyssa, feels that the film will be either an appreciated gift or a worthy memorial to the man. To get Eric started, she passes over a bottle of Pluto water, bottled at a spa in French Lick. Something about the bottle speaks to Eric, not least of which is the bottle’s unnatural chill.

The story proper begins when Eric arrives in Indiana. The towns of French Lick and West Baden are quite real, as are the spas associated with them. It’s clear that the author is familiar with the area. It’s not long at all before Eric discovers that the legend of Campbell Bradford is both more complicated and more shrouded in mystery than anyone in the family realized. The bottle of water continues to feel colder and Eric feels an irresistible impulse to try some of the famed water, never mind that the bottle is around eighty years old and he can see sediment floating in it. The fact that the author makes this action seem reasonable and logical from Eric’s perspective, even while the reader winces and hopes he doesn’t do it, is a testament to his ability to immerse the reader in the story.

For those old enough, or widely read enough, to remember early Stephen King novels, this atmosphere will seem ominously familiar. Eric makes a comment at some point about having checked into the Overlook Hotel (from The Shining.) The cast of characters includes a graduate student in local history and an 86-year-old woman who has spent her life in the area, monitoring the weather and knowing a storm is coming. That storm is both physical and metaphysical and sweeps along everyone in its path.

This is the kind of book that reads very quickly, then sticks with you days and weeks after turning the last pages. I know I’ll be making a return trip to West Baden in years to come. This is an author who clearly has more stories to tell us, and that makes us readers fortunate indeed.

Rating: 9
June 2010
ISBN# 978-0-316-05363-1 (hardcover)


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