Monday, August 11, 2008

Envy the Night - Michael Koryta

Frank Temple III grew up never having to wonder if his dad loved him. His father, Frank Temple II, was supportive and present and loving. The only problem: he was also a hit man, a murderer for hire. When the FBI finally cornered Frank II, he committed suicide, leaving behind the younger Frank, conflicted and lost. Frank III was only seventeen and society had deemed his father a monster. Frank knew his father to be different, but then how do you reconcile the father with the hit man? Especially when you're seventeen?

Frank knew his father had done bad things, but he still vowed that, given the chance, he would kill the man responsible for turning in his father to the authorities, Devin Matteson. Seven years later when he receives a call from Ezra Ballard announcing Devin's return to Wisconsin, Frank packs up his few belongings and heads for the lake house that contains all his cherished family memories.

Koryta has done it again. Each time I pick up a new work penned by this master, I'm amazed that it's possible to outdo the last one. He somehow manages to accomplish that fete.

Koryta has veered from his usual style in Envy the Night. Not only has he created a new set of characters, but he's also changed his point of view, writing in third person limited this time instead of first. And he didn't miss a beat. I enjoyed the way the limited view changed, allowing for some insightful thoughts to be revealed from various characters. It also helped to heighten the theme of the novel, life is mostly an area of gray - very rarely is it ever as easy as black and white.

That theme comes through in EVERY character. Koryta has a gift with characterization and that gift seems to heighten with every novel. One factor I always look for in "great" characters is depth. Characters who know everything and somehow have the skills to fit every situation - they have no depth; they are simply flat characters; the superhero character has been done to death. Give me a REAL character. One who has flaws like the rest of the human race; one who has doubts and concerns and conflictions. Those are the characters you see in Koryta's novels. Frank Temple II is a prime example of this. I couldn't help but think of the character Michael Sullivan in the movie, The Road to Perdition. Many people said that the reason you liked Sullivan in the movie was because America just can't dislike Tom Hanks. But I don't think that's true. Instead I think the same dilemma came into play that does with Frank Temple II: the character had admirable qualities; he wasn't completely evil. Both characters truly loved their families, and that's admirable. There is no place this is more evident than when Frank

was eleven years old and struck out with the bases loaded to end his Little League team's season, his father had held him in the car as he'd cried in shame and said, 'Don't worry, kid, next year we'll cork your bat,' and the tears had turned to laughter.

It would be easy to hate Frank II if he yelled at his son in front of everyone and added to the humiliation, but he didn't do that. He provided comfort and support. He didn't even discourage his son from crying. Don't we find that admirable - desirable - in a father?

A lot of times it is easier on a reader for the character to be flat. Then you aren't faced, like Frank, with the confliction of feelings that are elicited. It's easy to completely hate or completely love a character. But Koryta doesn't let you off that easy. He evokes an array of emotion in his reader from every angle. Another prime example of this is Jerry, the crotchety old guy working for Nora Stafford. As his character is being built up, he fits every stereotype of the chauvinist pig. I had to chuckle reading about him buying mirrors on eBay:

...but classic mirrors were hard to find - or so he'd thought until he discovered eBay. If he felt a bit fruity shopping for antiques on the Internet in the library (and he did), it was easy enough to dismiss that with the recollection that the mirrors were, of course, advertising alcohol. Nothing embarrassing about that.

Jerry constantly gives Nora a hard time, and he resents working for a woman. But, when he discovers that some out-of-towners roughed Nora up, he does an about face and a devoted friend shows up in his character. Koryta shows the reader, through Jerry, that it's easy to pass judgment superficially, but when you see inside the character, it isn't so easy to completely dislike - or love - him/her. Koryta sums up his theme with a great phrase, "consideration before conclusion."

Koryta did a bang-up job with the characters in this novel, and plot just drove the book home. This book was full of twists and turns. By this, Koryta's fourth book, I should know better than to think I can figure out the ending mid-way through. Koryta had me chasing my tail on this one; that's for sure. While I couldn't believe he'd be blatant about what the outcome was, it seemed like there was no other possibility - WRONG! And just when you think you've got the plot down, he throws another twist in the mix. I did have some sneaking suspicions about the outcome, but once the action hit full tilt, I forgot those suspicions had ever even existed. I was too caught up in the suspense to be making predictions.

You know in movies when they start playing the scary music, that something bad's going to happen. And your heart starts beating a little faster; you might be (like me) yelling at the character to "turn on the lights" or "get out of that house." And in two or three minutes the event has occurred and everything is back to status quo. You no longer think your heart is going to beat out of your chest and you're heart rate returns to normal. Well, Koryta creates that "scary music" effect - without the music - when Frank is sitting in Nora's truck and his father's words are echoing in his head:

You've got acres of trees on the north side of the building, offering protection for a watcher as well as a clear view of the entrance to the nursing home...Now that you're in the back corner of the lot, you can't see a damn thing, but if someone's in those trees, they saw you come in, and they're making plans for action. You can't make a counterattack plan, because you have no idea what the hell's going on, and won't until it's too late...You're already beaten, son. You let yourself get separated from the only person you had to take care of, the only body that needed guarding..

I immediately started to feel my heart quicken. I think I was hearing the scary music inside my head, even. However, this is almost 100 pages before the end of the book! And the intensity doesn't let up until the end. I was up until 2 in the morning because I certainly could NOT put the book down in the midst of the action and suspense. How could I have possibly fallen asleep not knowing what was going to happen?

Having a great plot to immerse yourself in is a treat in and of itself. But Koryta always adds that something extra special in his mastery of the English language. There are devices and phrases and descriptions threaded throughout the entire novel that just make me stop and reread. I just want to hear them over in my head because they are so effective.

Early in the novel Koryta uses alliteration. O.k., it isn't a new concept. Most anyone can come up with some alliteration, but the statement was "No punishment, no penance, no pain." Frank is thinking about Devin Matteson and how he got off scot-free by handing the feds Frank II on a platter. Can't you just hear the aggression, the spittle in the "p" sounds? The gritted teeth? The utter anger? Koryta didn't need an exclamation point - or an emoticon - on that phrase. The magic is in the words, and Koryta knows how to pick them.

And of course, a work by Koryta wouldn't be complete without some humor thrown in to lighten the mood. But what I want to know is exactly WHEN he was at my house to get the description of the furniture in Nora's dad's house? "Say this much for Dad's furniture, she thought, it looks like something you'd want to hide even at a garage sale, but it's comfortable."

One other section I wanted to highlight in this novel is a scene where Frank is at the lake watching an osprey dive-bombing its own nest. It takes a short while for Frank to figure out why the osprey is behaving this way:

He figured it out when the osprey made its second dive. Just as it neared the nest, another bird spread its wings and bobbed up on the thick piles of sticks, matching the osprey's scream with one of its own. This bird was larger, and unlike the osprey its head was pure white. There was a bald eagle in the osprey's nest. No wonder the other bird was pissed.

First of all the imagery in that paragraph is stunning. Two amazing birds; the laws of nature; dominion. It enhances the setting, but it ties into the plot as well. Not a word is wasted in Envy the Night. Everything has a place and a meaning. This is definitely a book to be reread. I'm sure I'll pick up even more on the next pass through, and it isn't likely to lose any of the magic.


beauvallet August 17, 2008 at 12:18 PM  

I had unexpected company (who left just half an hour ago) or I would have posted my thoughts on this book earlier.

O. M. G.

Koryta just gets better and better. St. Martin's are fools not to do everything in their power to keep MK under contract to them.

I thought MK did a terrific job getting into Nora's head, esp the part where she is thinking about her ex-fiance introducing her as "my fiance" with no name, no identity of her own. Very true to life.

Equally MK did a good job with the entire character of Frank III. He comes across as smart and full of rage but never comes across as TOO mature, even for all he'd been through. There are times you can tell that Frank is just not fully matured, and it is perfectly written.

Jen, this book is SO good that it almost makes me want MK to keep writing the standalones, and let Lincoln Perry go. Al-most.

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