Tim Gautreaux’s newest novel, The Missing (Knopf, 2009) is tough, spare, and lyrical. I had been avoiding reading Gautreaux for years because I was under the mistaken impression that he was one of the southern gothic group of writers, like the late Larry Brown, whose books I found simply too tough to take. (Ron Rash’s glowingly reviewed Serena is another novel I would put into the Brown category.) Having gotten interested in New Orleans, though, and on the recommendation of a friend, I picked up The Missing and was immediately drawn into the story of Sam Simoneaux, a World War I veteran whose participation in the war was minimal (he was sent to the battlefields of France just as the war officially wound down) and yet profound: his experiences there would shape the rest of his life. When a three-year-old girl is kidnapped in the New Orleans department store where Sam works as a floorwalker, he is blamed — rightly or wrongly — by himself and others for the crime. After being fired from his job, he makes it his life work to locate Lily and return her to her distraught parents. Much of this section of the novel takes place on a riverboat — a four-deck, 300-foot stern-wheeler, on which Lily’s parents work as musicians. The stern-wheeler, complete with dance hall, casino, and tavern, and always in danger of bursting into flames, destroying itself in a fog, or simply sinking, travels as a party boat up and down the Mississippi River and its tributaries, from New Orleans up to small Ohio towns. The scenes on the stern-wheeler are some of the books strongest: the backbreaking labor of keeping the boat moving, the segregated entertainers, the Negro musicians, the rowdy crowds, and the work of navigating the rivers. As Sam’s life gets woven into the lives of Elsie and Ted Weller, their son August, and their missing child, he begins to look into his own life, the brutal murder of his parents when he was a child, and the death of his infant son.
I found this novel to be unlike most contemporary fiction. First of all, the characters are unlike people most of us are familiar with. Secondly, you have to consciously slow down to read it, much as you do with a 19th century novel. The Missing just won’t let you rush through. And you don’t really want to, because Gautreaux‘s writing engages all of our senses — smells, tastes, sights, and sounds — as we slowly turn the pages. Perhaps most importantly, though, it’s a novel that deals with big issues of love, revenge, war, death, morality, and blame. It’s all there and Gautreaux makes us think about them; but they’re presented in such a subtle way that you don’t feel hit over the head by the issues the author has raised.
Here’s a description of one of the minor characters — you can see with what care Gautreaux has created him:
The man’s hands were in his lap, swollen and furry. The crotch of his overalls had split open and spilled out onto the caned set. His graying beard was braided and ran down onto his left thigh like a greasy snake. One overall strap was missing and he wore no shirt, his skin botched and sun cratered, his eyes running like sores. The ground around the chair was littered with a mat of small bones as though he’d sat there for years eating chicken and squirrel.
I am also very pleased that Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper is in paperback from Back Bay Books– just the thing for plane trips and rainy weekends. I loved this novel (my original review below) – adrenaline charged, clever writing, and a great, if gory (not for the weak of stomach) climax. Don’t miss it.
Beat the Reaper, a first novel by Joshua Bazell, is funny, gross, violent, and profane (in almost equal measure). And it has footnotes (which I loved). If you’re not bothered by the violence and can overlook what some call – always with quotation marks – “language,” you’ll find a novel that is also touching and a little bit sad. But don’t read it unless you have a strong stomach. And don’t start it late in the afternoon (as I unfortunately did), because you won’t be able to put it down until you finish it, which doesn’t augur well for a productive work experience the next day. One way of describing the plot is to think of it as House meets Dexter in the world of The Godfather. At one point in the recent past, Peter Brown, born Pietro Brnwa, a young man with a checkered past, turned state’s evidence against his former friends, and was sent to college and med school as part of the Witness Protection Program. Now he’s a resident at a hospital in Manhattan. And he’s having a really, really bad day. He discovers that one of his patients is a former, shall we say, colleague (now dying under an assumed name), who threatens to make Peter’s whereabouts known to all and sundry. That “all and sundry” would include his former best friend, Skinflick, who Peter thought he’d disposed of back in the good old days when Peter was nicknamed “The Bearclaw” by that old gang of his. Alas, no – Skinflick actually survived being thrown from an upper floor of an apartment building; he’s now known as Skingraft, and he’s got revenge on his mind. Great fun, rather gruesome (Jaws, anyone?) and compulsively readable.