Strange and luminous, this fascinating psychological thriller from Heim (In Awe) tackles questions of identity, illness and trauma. Scott, a writer and drug addict, travels back to Kansas from New York City at the request of his ill mother, Donna, who's become obsessed with missing children. Scott soon finds out that Donna believes she was kidnapped in her youth by an elderly couple who eventually returned her unharmed. This experience has led her to an odd alliance with a boy who leaves candy on Donna's front porch. When Donna becomes too ill to continue research for a supposed book on disappeared children, Scott, with help from a friend of Donna's, goes on the road for answers. Taut and beautifully clear, the writing at times recalls that of Paul Auster, but the plot ends in a place less interesting than where it began. The reader may feel that revealing the mundane truth behind Donna's childhood experiences betrays the essential mystery of all the lost boys and girls described in the novel. (Mar.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
We Disappearby Scott Heim
The body of a teenage boy is discovered in a Kansas field. The murder haunts Donna—a recent widow battling cancer—calling forth troubling details from long-suppressed memories of her past. Hoping to discover more about "disappeared" people, she turns to her son, Scott, who is fighting demons of his own. Addicted to methamphetamines and sleeping pills,
The body of a teenage boy is discovered in a Kansas field. The murder haunts Donna—a recent widow battling cancer—calling forth troubling details from long-suppressed memories of her past. Hoping to discover more about "disappeared" people, she turns to her son, Scott, who is fighting demons of his own. Addicted to methamphetamines and sleeping pills, Scott is barely holding on—though the chance to help his mother in her strange and desperate search holds out a slim promise of some small salvation.
But what he finds is a boy named Otis handcuffed in a secret basement room, and the questions that arise seem too disturbing even to contemplate. With his mother's health rapidly deteriorating, he must surrender to his own obsession, and unravel Otis's unsettling connections to other missing teens . . . and, ultimately, to Scott himself.
When his mother's cancer worsens, Scott leaves New York and returns home to Kansas to help her. He is quickly drawn into Donna's obsession with stories about missing children-an obsession that is linked to her own mysterious disappearance for a time when she was a child. Scott's meth addiction makes it hard to judge his mother's mental and physical state, but his longing to comfort and connect with her has him playing along, well past the point of safety. Donna's conflicting stories, Scott's own evasions, and the bizarre complicity of a teenage boy make for a heady, sometimes overheated brew, but Heim writes movingly of physical decline and death. And while the reader may be frustrated with characters who lack all common sense, their behavior fits the story's logic. The overall effect is a combination of mystery, literary fiction, ode to the missing, and love story about family. Heim's first novel, Mysterious Skin, was made into a well-received independent film in 2005. Recommended for larger fiction collections.
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The little girls who found the body of the missing boy were not angels, although that is how the newspaper described them, the following morning, beneath the headline. I saw the photo, after all, and the seven girls were only girls. They had no haloes or transparent wings. They had no heavenly warmth or sweet, scarless faces kissed individually by God. What the girls did have were muddy pantlegs and boots; bright jackets buttoned against the wind of a Sunday hiking trip; name tags in crooked calligraphy made just that morning by their Lutheran youth-group sponsor. Teresa and Joy, Maura Kay, Mary Anne. Two Jennifers and a Missy. When I close my eyes, I picture the girls stepping back, a warped semicircle, as the body of the murdered boy, his bones and tattered flannels, alters their lives forever. Their hands folded clumsily for prayer. Their seven mouths a silent chorus of ohs.
My mother woke to her room, her hushed house at the end of the street. It was newly morning; she sensed the threat of rain in the bleary sky. She made the walk to the kitchen to pour weak iced tea into a smudged glass. Through the sounds of wind and the sparrows in the trees, she listened for the paperboy, his determined grinding rhythm, until finally, through the swelling silence, came the circular clack of gears, the spit of gravel, the paper's thud against the screen.
She carried the Hutchinson News to her morning bath. The clawfoot tub . . . the Victorian washerwoman prints she'd found at the junkyard . . . the pink towels bordered with roses. She twisted the faucet as hot as she could stand and, lowering herselfthrough the layer of water, unrolled the front page.
My mother saw the headline and photograph. At last: the missing boy.
Henry Barradale, the words said. For the past three days, since reading about the body, she'd been tracking the progress. She had called the police offices; searched for articles on her slow-speed, secondhand computer; stayed up late within the tolerant television light. And now she knew. She raised the paper above the bathwater and ran her fingers along the words. Family Identifies Partridge Boy: a father, mother, and two younger sisters still lived, left behind, in tiny Partridge, Kansas. My mother noted the funeral date. Henry Barradale would be laid to rest at Rayl's Hill cemetery: the same that held her parents, her older brothers and sisters, and even her first husband, the father who'd died only weeks before I was born. Rayl's Hill was the same where, only fourteen months earlier, my stepfather, John, had been buried beside her own empty plot. Yes, my mother knew the cemetery well.
She took her pills with the tea, sitting at the table to sketch her plan. At two o'clock she dialed my number in New York. "Finally he has a name," she said into my machine. She pronounced each word as though he were royalty. From bed I heard her breathless voice, but was too tired to answer. "Hope you're thinking seriously about coming home. I'll call again when I know more."
She found the road atlas, torn-cornered and coverless, among a stack of hospital bills in the hall closet. Partridge, faint point on the map, was only twenty miles away. My mother ripped the atlas pages, figuring she'd never visit those other states again. She tucked Kansas into her purse and began to dress. I imagine she wore her tortoiseshell glasses. I imagine she dabbed some red on her lips, pausing to decide between the wig and half-folded scarf. The straggle toward the antique mirror. The uncertain smile, lights off, the same I'd caught on the day of John's funeral, before Friday-morning treatments, times she thought no one could see. The rain was soft; she could walk to the pickup without getting too wet. Henry's picture stayed sheltered in her purse, alongside the pictures of John, of my sister Alice and me, the atlas pages, the orange prescription bottles. My mother spread the map on the seat, turned the key, and silenced the pedal-steel ballad on the radio. She fixed her eyes on the rainy road, steering John's pea-green Ford along the highway toward Partridge.
All week, she'd called as often as four times a night. In a hesitant, almost childlike voice, she'd urged me to leave New York, to return home. We could play detectives, she'd said. You and me, just the two of us, like we used to do. Come home and we'll learn everything about the missing boy.
The two of us, she'd said. In truth, it was my mother, not me, who'd willingly traveled this world before. Her obsession began the autumn I turned ten. During those chilly, copper months, a boy named Evan Carnaby had vanished from our hometown. He was a boy of fifteen, just like the later Henry; he had identical boredoms and daydreams and after-school slammed doors. Missing, said the flyers Evan's family posted along our streets. Missing, warned the newsmen on our radio and TV.
At first, Alice and I were stunned. We felt we'd known Evan personally: we'd seen him hurling backyard baseballs with his dad; we'd watched from our window seats as he'd boarded our bus. But our strange thrill was no match for our mother's. She'd recently accepted a job at the Kansas State Industrial Reformatory, the maximum-security prison in nearby Hutchinson, and was now our authority on any trickles of knowledge about Evan. She became an insider, a specialist. Evenings, I'd watch proudly as she unbuttoned her walnut-brown uniform and took her hair from its bun. I'd stare at her gold badges and KSIR patches, the belt on which hung a gold-knobbed nightstick, and, most astonishingly, a gun. Perhaps I believed our mother could save Evan Carnaby. Perhaps she believed it, too.We Disappear
A Novel. Copyright © by Scott Heim. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
The author of two novels and a volume of poetry, Scott Heim has written for numerous publications, including The Advocate, Village Voice, and Nerve.com. He lives in Boston.
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Modus Exodus It is rewarding to find book titles that can be taken on so many levels. Such is the case for Scot Heim's fine novel WE DISAPPEAR. Yes, the running story is the following of mother and son on the trail of missing children (and that story is sufficient reason to become engrossed in this compelling novel). But the characters Heim creates are all 'disappearing' - from the descending vitality of Donna the mother whose battle with lymphoma is a losing one and she is disappearing into death, to the mind state of her son Scott whose life centers on smoking and snorting crystal meth and balancing his slow disappearance from reality with heavy doses of Ambein sleeping pills, to the all but disappeared presence of Alice (Scott's sister who can no longer cope with Scott's drugs or her mother's prolonged futile chemotherapy, to the disappearances of Donna's friend Dolores into the bourbon glass, to the disappearance of Gavin - the drug source for the addicted Scott. Sounds too far fetched to be true? No, not in the skilled hands of Heim who knows well how to build characters so that we visualize them with ease and thus take note of their varying forms of disappearing. But the main story line is Donna's preoccupation with disappearing children, a topic she has made her life's work and the trail for which she has called her son Scott from his New York stupor to help her complete. Together they make an odd but ultimately endearing couple as they follow clues for reported missing (read 'kidnapped') children whose bodies are recovered after some ungainly pasts. In the end it is a tale that Donna shares with Scott, his sister Alice, and her friend Dolores - a tale that unveils secrets of Donna's childhood that are shocking and puzzling. In the midst of this search there appears a young teenager Otis who winds up kidnapped in Donna's basement and with whom Scott discovers the secrets Donna has shrouded. This may sound like a cast of misfits about whom we could care little, but in Scott Heim's eloquent prose we grow into the minds of these folks from Kansas and become inextricably involved in the conundrums they each present. Heim understands addiction, suffering, the dying process, and the need for returning to the womb that mother's, no matter how loony, represent. This is a story that could be excerpted purely for the descriptions of the lonely plains of Kansas and the atmospheres of the seasons. It simply is a fine read, on every level. Grady Harp