Monday, November 01, 2010

Review: So Cold the River by Michael Koryta

Eric Shaw is a washed-up filmmaker who has returned to Chicago from LA and has been relegated to making memorial videos for funerals for a living. The fact that he sometimes picks up on things no one else does -- strong feelings about the past that seem to be messages from the dead -- helps him in his current line of work, but otherwise is just embarrassing. After a client is struck by one of his observations, however, he is offered a video job that takes him to new psychic heights and incredible danger.

The job involves digging up the past of Campbell Bradford, a dying nonagenarian who quietly amassed a tremendous fortune. Eric is to go to the adjacent towns of French Lick and West Badan, Indiana, where Bradford grew up, and is handed a bottle of mineral water from the area, a curio that Bradford had with him his whole life but would say nothing about. The bottle is oddly cold regardless of the room temperature. Eric decides to taste it, and it make him violently ill. He takes the bottle with him when he goes south, and it becomes downright frosty. He also decides to taste it again and this time finds it sweet, drinking much of it. Each time he drinks, he has visions of a man in a bowler hat who appears to be from the late 1920's.

In between swigs, Eric has withdrawl symptoms from the water, but he finds that if he drinks mineral water from the 1920's from a different bottle, the symptoms are contained. While dealing with his reactions to the water and researching Bradford, he runs in to some interesting characters: the brother of a famous basketball player who is researching the Black history of the area; an elderly woman who is a tornado spotter; and Bradford's good-for-nothing grandson. It soon becomes clear that the story of Campbell Bradford from Chicago is not quite the same as the Campbell Bradford from French Lick, the weather is getting worse, and the man in the bowler hat becomes more than a vision; he is a ghost trying to manipulate the present. And in the midst of all this is the newly-restored historic West Baden Hotel. It is, itself, a character in the book, lovingly described and the center of much of the action.

So Cold the River is an unusual ghost story. Haunted mineral water? Now that's different. The characters were more-or-less likable and believable (although Eric is whiney and pretty stupid to drink the mineral water a second time after it makes his ill the first), but the book was just too long, and the fascinating denouement was marred by inconsistencies. At one point on character is so injured he can hardly move and within an hour be rushes to help Eric, who is within sight but a distance away over difficult terrain. Sorry, adrenaline can only do so much, in my opinion.

I just didn't quite get how the haunted mineral water worked, either. OK, a guy with psychic leanings drinks the stuff and has very realistic visions of a ghost. But why does he have horrible physical symptoms that are only cured by drinking more of the stuff? Why does drinking other water from that era hold the symptoms off and lessen the visions? Unnecessary.

And that is exactly my beef with this 500+ page book; so much of it seemed unnecessary. Koryta confesses it started out as a novela and just kept going. There's nothing inherently wrong with starting that way, but finishing as well? Where was the editor? This narrative has too many characters, plot devices, and repetitive foreshadowing in the form of weather.

I bet if I were from Indiana and knew of the real West Badan Hotel, which sounds amazing, I would have been much more interested in this story. As it is, I am just a bit confounded and not in all interested should the haunted mineral water threaten the town of French Lick again.

See what The New York Times had to say about the book:

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