I don’t know if THE PROPHET is the best book that Michael Koryta will ever write, but it certainly reads like it. It’s a novel with heft, character and timelessness that I'm absolutely sure will stand up and be read in whatever form literature finds itself presented as 10, 20 or even 50 years from now. It also defies easy categorization. You could call TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD a courtroom thriller, and you’d be right, but it wouldn’t be entirely true; similarly, you could call THE PROPHET a crime thriller or a mystery, and yes, it has those elements, but it is also about family, relationships, generations, dreams and perseverance. It’s different from anything that Koryta has given us before, and while he has never written badly --- that would seem to be impossible at this point --- THE PROPHET is in a class all by itself.
"THE PROPHET doesn’t end quite like I thought it would. Koryta begins quietly lobbing hand grenades into the narrative about two thirds of the way through the book and doesn’t stop until practically the very end, when the quiet presentation of a revelation may well bring tears to your eyes."
The book is set roughly in northern Ohio, in October --- the middle of football season --- in Chambers County. If you spent your formative years in a small town in those parts, one named Doylestown or Copley or Navarre or Bath or Medina or Brunswick, then you’re going to feel an ache in your heart when you read THE PROPHET. Chambers was once a manufacturing town but is on its last legs. Among its few remaining points of pride: the high school football team, coached by Kent Austin. The team has chalked up a remarkable record under Austin’s careful eye, but has always been a bridesmaid and never a bride during Austin’s tenure.
The only time that the Chambers Cardinals won the state title was well over a decade before, when Kent’s older brother Adam was the team’s star fullback. The brothers barely speak, the result of a momentarily selfish moment that resulted in their sister being abducted and murdered. While Kent is respected as the local coach, Adam plies his trade as a bail bondsman, lying down with dogs and more often than not waking up with fleas.
The past collides with the present when, just as the Cardinals are beginning the long and arduous playoff road to the state championships, another teenage girl is horrifically murdered, her demise echoing the death of Adam’s and Austin’s sister years before. Worse, the brothers each have a separate and tenuous connection to the young victim, to the extent that both (rightly or wrongly) feel a sense of responsibility and guilt for her death. Slowly and tentatively, they regain contact, confronting their anger with themselves and with each other before uniting to catch a killer and perhaps gaining a measure of revenge retroactively for the death of their sister.
That story by itself would be worth picking up the book, but Koryta ratchets up the suspense quotient a notch or three with the parallel story of the Cardinals’ chase for the state trophy, a prize that is earned one difficult yard at a time down in the striped dirt on a series of Fridays nights.
THE PROPHET doesn’t end quite like I thought it would. Koryta begins quietly lobbing hand grenades into the narrative about two thirds of the way through and doesn’t stop until practically the very end, when the quiet presentation of a revelation may well bring tears to your eyes. And one other thing. Koryta, who was raised in a small, backward village that the natives call “Indiana,” captures the angst of small Ohio towns so well and so perfectly that you almost expect Chambers to pop up from between the pages of the book as you read. It simply does not get any better than this.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 10, 2012