Tuesday, March 15, 2011

THE CYPRESS HOUSE - Michael Koryta

First line: "They'd been on the train for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first of the dead men."

Arlen Wagner has a "gift." He can see when people are going to die. So when he sees death in the people on the train he and Paul Brickhill are riding, he insists they get off and find another form of transportation. That transportation ends up being a ride hitched from Walter Sorenson, Sorenson agrees to take Arlen and Paul to Hillsborough County but he has to make some stops along the way. The last of those stops turns out to be a boarding house in Corridor County called "The Cypress House" where Sorenson dies in an explosion. Against his better judgment, Arlen agrees to stay and help Paul fix up The Cypress House after a destructive storm blows through. Paul's found himself smitten with the owner of The Cypress House, Rebecca Cady, but Arlen knows there's nothing but trouble for them in Corridor County and it's only a matter of time before that trouble finds them.

Koryta takes another run at the supernatural in THE CYPRESS HOUSE, but that element is minor in the novel's overall plot. Instead, the criminal activity that is taking place in Corridor County dominates the action of the novel.

The pacing of THE CYPRESS HOUSE seemed a bit slower than many of Koryta's novels, but for me that accentuated the tone and atmosphere of the Southern Gulf Coast and the desolate boarding house. It also acted to heighten the effect the storm creates.

The major strength of this novel, not unlike Koryta's previous novels, lies in the characters and their relationships to one another. It's the dynamics of those relationships that give THE CYPRESS HOUSE its depth and substance. Koryta brings the world around them to life by bringing his characters to life.

Arlen can see impending death in those around him. He had to endure this "gift" through a war and now the only thing he wants is to live a simple quiet life:
"...Arlen had no desire to be among those in charge. That was the goal, supposedly, the ordained American Dream, to rise from the ranks of the small and become a colossus.

It wasn't in him, though. The bigger your role, the more people you impacted with your decisions. He didn't want to have to make those sorts of decisions. All he wanted to do was work. If his day ended when the last nail was driven, it had been a good day. It had been a damned good day."
This contrasts with young, nineteen-year-old Paul who is gung-ho to make a difference for Rebecca Cady, to whom he's taken a shine. The almost parent-child relationship that develops between these two parallels Arlen's own relationship with his father. As the dynamics of the relationships between Arlen, Paul, Rebecca and Owen build, they drive not only the reader's connections to the characters, but the relationships also drive the plot.

I recently heard someone compare a story to a bicycle and its rider. The plot is the bicycle itself and the characters are the rider. If the characters aren't strong enough or able, the plot goes no where. Koryta creates characters who can not only pedal and steer the bike, but they can ride blind-folded, no handed and pop wheelies simultaneously.  

And finally, it's simply impossible to comment on a Koryta novel and overlook his use of language. His skill with words impacts every element of the novel. Great characters and plot make for a good book; when the language flows with as much beauty as Koryta crafts on his pages, the book becomes great: imagery takes shape in the readers' minds, characters become living breathing beings who could believably walk off the pages, and events take their place on the world's time line. For the 400 pages we spend in Koryta's world, fiction and non-fiction begin to blur lines.
"A wild idea, to be sure, but on a day such as this, when all he'd known to be true had blown apart beneath the mortar shells of firsthand experience, wild ideas had seemed possible."
Koryta convinces his readers that those wild ideas he dreams up can be possible. And that's what makes him a remarkable storyteller.

THE CYPRESS HOUSE is available from Little, Brown and Company in hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-316-05372-3) and on audio from Hachette Audio (ISBN: 978-1-607-88681-5).


Swapna March 15, 2011 at 12:15 PM  

I'm about 100 pages into this right now and am loving it. It's my first Koryta, but it won't be my last!

bermudaonion March 15, 2011 at 1:20 PM  

I'm generally not a fan of supernatural elements, but when Koryta incorporates them in his stories, they seem natural to me. I loved this book.

Jen Forbus March 15, 2011 at 8:38 PM  

Swapna, can't wait to hear what you think. I'll watch for your review.

Cathy, I'm not a supernatural fan either, but since Michael established himself with me in his crime novels, I had to at least give these a try and of course I loved them. Now if he tries writing romance, I may have to draw the line. ;-)

Anonymous March 18, 2011 at 2:13 PM  

From your description, his "gift" sounds very much like that of the protagonist in the old Twilight Zone episode "The Purple Testament," which was set in the Pacific during WWII. In that story, the character not only had to cope w/"seeing" which of his men were going to die, he eventually saw the telltale "glow" in the mirror...

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