I don’t read books, and it’s not for the superficial reasons one would think. It’s not because I’m a jock and don’t have the cognitive function to complete a paragraph until sundown. I don’t read books because I have read books and today’s literature is uninspiring, unoriginal, and surfeit. Some first chapters of books are cliché and trite, which leads me retreat further into my cynical suspicions that the publishing industry is more about who you know than what you know.
Michael Koryta’s The Prophet doesn’t give me that feeling.
If football is a way of life, then The Prophet immediately puts you in a setting most familiar. Grid iron terminology and concepts are replete throughout the book, whether they appear in their natural place on the field or in a character’s thought process. This setting is a great introduction to the universe of The Prophet without ever having even read a book from the thriller genre.
The Prophet centers around Adam and Kent Austin, two brothers whose respective handling of their sister Marie’s murder led them on disparate and conflicting paths. Kent is the head coach of the Chambers Cardinals high school football team and leads an upright, diligent life with his wife and two children, while Adam is a local bail bondsman living with his girlfriend (who is still married to another man) who uses whatever means to reach his ends. After Marie’s untimely demise, Kent immersed himself into football, and Adam recreated Marie’s room down to exact details and would knock twice before entering her room to “talk to her” at regular intervals.
The book opens with a prologue setting the stage in the town of Chambers, Ohio, a diminishing town in northeastern Ohio that was once known for its prolific steel mills. Koryta describes a killer going by the cognomen “the prophet” observing Kent Austin coaching the Cardinals on the practice field. The prologue also gives a detail that “the prophet” admired the theatrics of a killer named Zane who asked his victims to declare Zane their god before execution. Frankly, the prologue was not needed and added nothing to the plot. All of this information was explained later throughout the book. Opening up in Chapter One where Adam helps an alleged senior co-ed on finding her father who was recently released from Mansfield State prison would have been a more optimal way to begin The Prophet. Let’s get right to the action, and seventeen year old Rachel Bond, posing as the college co-ed “April,” put the plot into motion. “The prophet” stalking Kent didn’t.
Rachel wants to find an address for her father, who says in a series of letters that he’s living locally in Chambers. She goes to Adam because she claims “Coach Austin” – Kent – recommended Adam for the task, which was quite curious to Adam due to the estrangement he’s had with his brother. Ultimately, after going out to the address Adam gave her for her father’s residence, a murderer asphyxiates Rachel Bond with a plastic bag. While Chambers mourns, especially the rent heart of Rachel’s stud wide receiver boyfriend, Colin Mears, Adam goes into full-on projection mode and equates it to his sister Marie’s murder some twenty years earlier. Adam takes his obsession with his sister’s murder to dangerous and harmful levels when he promises Rachel’s mother he will track down and kill her murderer, as well as making the same vow in Marie’s shrine-room.
Along with being an ex-newspaper reporter like Ernest Hemingway, Michael Koryta is a former private investigator. Even so, the author credits Trace Investigations and the Rocky River Police Department for his detective research. This is where the book really displays its cogency, and the vehicle for all of the chasing and tracking is Adam Austin, since he used similar techniques to track down clients who posted bond and skipped court dates.
The inside jacket cover bills the grid iron action of the book as being a hearkening to “three yards and a cloud of dust,” a band of football unique to the Midwest, Vince Lombardi, and Paul Brown. What’s ironic is Kent Austin’s Cardinals run a vertical passing game right out of Don Coryell’s playbook. Not at all to huckster the book with a Cowboys slant so followers of America’s Team would read the review, but Kent Austin reminds me of Jason Garrett both inside the lines and beyond. The obvious comparison is the vertical offense. The other comparisons are the way Kent rarely yelled at his players. Rather, he would let his fiery defensive coordinator harangue the players while he hung back and focused on techniques and staying resolute in the face of victory and defeat. In the aftermath of Rachel Bond’s death, as the town memorialized her and the team dedicated their season to her, Kent’s emotional resolve was the consistency the team relied upon as the world swirled around them.
There’s also an element of Tom Landry in the Kent Austin character, particularly when you compare Tom Landry’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes endeavors to Kent Austin’s prison ministry. As a Christian, Kent believed in forgiveness, such to the point he went to Mansfield state prison and prayed over his sister’s murderer, even though the man laughed in his face. This whole experience was the catalyst for Kent and Adam’s falling out. Nonetheless, Kent remained steady in his prison ministry and caught the attention of another inmate, Clayton Sipes, who found Kent’s determination to forgive and live a challenge. Subsequently, it is revealed Clayton Sipes impersonated Rachel’s father upon Sipes’ release from prison that August. Clayton Sipes goes to the head of the class of suspects, notably when he shows up at Kent’s house with a gun and taunts him. Consequently, this episode of “Austins in the Terror” brings Adam and Kent closer to the point Adam now sits in Kent’s home with a gun every night waiting for Sipes to return.
Naturally, due to his vow to Rachel’s mother and his obsession with Rachel’s murder, Adam discovers from Kent who Clayton Sipes is. In an all too convenient plot function, one of Adam’s skips is wearing a GPS-tracker device and happens to be Sipes’ half-brother. After not moving for nearly two weeks, when the skip leaves in the middle of the night to go to an abandoned apartment on the other side of town, Adam deduces this is where Sipes lives, drives to his apartment, and executes him with two to the chest.
When pictures of Rachel Bond’s corpse next to recent pictures of Kent Austin’s family show up on the door of Kent’s home and Rachel’s mother’s door, it’s apparent that Sipes wasn’t working alone. An FBI agent investigating the case reveals it was Kent’s pal in the prison ministry who orchestrated the whole murder and was using all of the past events to test Kent Austin, to see if he would give into fear over his faith. Knowing that the true perpetrator is in Chambers, Kent asks Adam for a gun and the address where Clayton Sipes stayed. Kent goes to finish what he inadvertently started whenever he joined the prison ministry and gave his witness to Clayton Sipes.
I don’t like Clayton Sipes and Dan Grissom, the architect, as characters. There’s no depth to them and there’s nothing unique. Honestly, after the pictures of Rachel appeared after Sipes’ death, I knew it was Grissom based on the prologue. Who else was on the field watching Kent coach? For a book wherein the world is limitless, where you don’t need to do “bottle shows” like on television, where you don’t need to worry about who the studio wants as a guest star, where you don’t have to cram the story down to two hours and thirty minutes, Koryta really passed the dorch here. It was like watching Brad Whittaker and Georgi Koskov as Bond villains in The Living Daylights after dealing with other much sinister, dangerous threats in previous films.
However, the terror and painful memories Sipes and Grissom put the brothers Austin through was very well done and exemplary. Probably because they were the stars of the book, but Koryta really developed the motivations of Adam and Kent. I would have liked to have seen the same depth given to Sipes and Grissom. Why would a man who was expelled from seminary with a psychology degree need men to follow him? Why would Sipes want to follow Grissom? What was the “worldview” they shared? I felt like Grissom and Sipes came together because they had to, and they were sinister the way they were, particularly Grissom, because they had to be, not necessarily because it was in their character.
The implications of what Sipes and Grissom were doing, even before they were on the radar as suspects, were legitimately eerie. The best stalkers are the ones who make their presence felt without even being seen. The little clues that they left to let the Austins perceive the specter without seeing it was very well done. I compare it to what Dathan Auerbach did in his Penpal series on Reddit. You didn’t even need to see the stalker or know his motivations for him to spook you.
Perhaps that’s why Sipes and Grissom fall short in my eyes. Because it is a novel and there was more space to flesh out their characters, their reasons for being so ominous and threatening weren’t believable. It’s as if Koryta treaded out into those waters of explanation but never completed the lap of making it convincing.
The only instance that was gripping and gave such promise to the terror that would reign was when Sipes showed up at Kent’s home. Sipes’ smirking demeanor and creepy observations of Beth turning on the TV in the upstairs bedroom, oblivious to the standoff at gunpoint her husband was having with Sipes, was masterfully done and set up expectations for more when the resolution finally came. Instead, Sipes and Grissom met their demise without so much as a lengthy speech outlining their motivations, let alone a standoff wherein Grissom looked into Austin’s eyes and saw the faith on the precipice of fear.
Another thing I didn’t like was how the team kept on winning after their stud wide receiver got skillet hands upon his girlfriend’s murder. It’s possible that Chambers was a good enough team to overcome that, much the same way the 2010 Dallas Cowboys were able to compete down to the wire in eight games without star quarterback Tony Romo. But there wasn’t any exposition on the players who would make that possible, other than quarterback Lorell McCoy. Perhaps it would have undone the plot and strangled the book had the Cardinals lost their next playoff game. Still, it would have been more realistic for how a small town would respond to such tragedy. This is not to say that The Prophet is some fantasy book where teams win state championships amidst tragedy and your older brother, after killing your stalkers, meets you and the kids on Sunday afternoons for barbecue chicken. In Koryta’s Chambers, Ohio, there are consequences. There is a pound of flesh extracted. It’s like Bon Jovi’s song “Real Life”: the hero doesn’t get his way entirely here.
The plot was unique yet executed above averagely. It wasn’t all too surprising to see how it all connected in the end. Adam and Kent were the most defined characters. Everyone else, including supporting protagonists, had their motivations and descriptions tapered off relative to their significance. The only supporting character that was described in nearly as much detail, or at least defined as much as the brothers Austin, was Adam’s live-in girlfriend Chelsea Salinas. I don’t feel like Koryta captured that same pearl he did with Chelsea that he could have with the other characters.
Koryta’s use of football terminology and the way he portrayed the grid iron life was realistic and very accurate. He credits his time with Scott Bless and the Bloomington High School North football program with this research. How much of that is due to Koryta’s understanding of the game and his time with Bloomington North is subject to discussion, but it does not detract from his description of the game and the life. To reiterate, this is a great entry point to the book for anyone who loves football at any playing level.