You Remind Me of Me is the first novel by an author already established for mournful, eloquent short stories with a tone reminiscent of Russell Banks's. Mr. Chaon's stories have been about emotional ellipses in his characters' lonely lives. (His collection Among the Missing was a nominee for the National Book Award.) In the same manner the new book is a peculiarly haunting work, since it has as much to do with what is absent from its characters' stories as with what is present. So Jonah grows up to be an uneasy loner, and he clings to the sense that his life could have been different if one important loss had never occurred. He knows exactly what that loss is.
The New York Times
Three lives viewed through a kaleidoscope of memories and secret pain assume a kind of mythical dimension in Chaon's piercingly poignant tale of fate, chance and search for redemption. As he demonstrated in his short story collection Among the Missing, Chaon has a sensitive radar for the daily routines of people striving to escape the margins of poverty and establish meaningful lives. Here, a woman's unsuccessful effort to rise above the pain of giving away an illegitimate baby, and to fight against mental illness and offer love to a second child, blights all their lives. Living with his harsh and bitter mother, Norma, and his kindly grandfather in Little Bow, S.Dak., young Jonah Doyle is permanently scarred after the family's Doberman attacks and maims him. The resulting livid ridges on his face are the outward manifestations of a deeper wound that will always haunt him. After his mother's suicide, Jonah sets out to find the older brother he has never met, and in the process, brings them both to the verge of tragedy. Jonah's older sibling is Troy Timmens, a well-meaning bartender and sometime drug dealer in St. Bonaventure, Nebr., who is devoted to his six-year-old son, Loomis. The boy will play a pivotal part in Jonah's quixotic attempts to win Troy's love. Chaon structures his plot in alternating flashbacks, and the fragmentary time structure forces the reader to puzzle out the relationships and contributes to rising dramatic tension. Chaon's clarity of observation, expressed in restrained, nuanced prose, coupled with his compassion for his flawed characters, creates a heart-wrenching story of people searching for connection. (June) Forecast: Readers of Kent Haruf will find similarities here, in the settings in small towns on the Great Plains and in the dignified portrayal of people leading secret, stoic lives. Eight-city author tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
In his masterly first novel, Chaon tells an absorbing tale of fate and the struggle for recovery and human connection. His greatest strength is the ability to intertwine multiple stories while neatly showcasing the tangled threads of each character. In one thread, a young boy named Jonah is brutally attacked and permanently scarred by his grandfather's Doberman pinscher; in another, Norma, Jonah's mentally ill mother, recalls entering a home for unwed mothers, where she prepared to give up her first child for adoption. That brings us to said child, Troy Timmens, a small-time drug dealer and bartender with a son of his own, Loomis. Jonah seeks out his older brother, who desperately wants more out of life, but their connection ends in disaster. Chaon, whose short story collection, Among the Missing, drew rave reviews, allows his characters to enact their lives, losses, and hopes in a stark and realistic manner. Readers who prefer expertly crafted plotting and strong characterization will be drawn to this novel. Highly recommended for public library systems with an emphasis on literary fiction and for anyone interested in promising first novelists. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/04.] Christopher J. Korenowsky, Columbus Metropolitan Lib. Syst., OH Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This first novel focuses on the disparate lives of a fragmented family as they struggle with the harsh realities of poverty, depression, and dysfunction. The story opens with Jonah, a troubled, self-involved boy in a small South Dakota town. Raised by a depressed and suicidal mother who never wanted him, he survives an attack from the family's Doberman only to be severely scarred on his face and hands. Jonah develops into a lonely and isolated man who tries to make connections with anyone willing to befriend him, only to push others away by eventually demanding more than they want to give. Driven by his need for acceptance, Jonah seeks out an older half brother who was given up for adoption at birth. Troy, a bartender and occasional marijuana dealer, has difficulties of his own: shortly after the disappearance of his wife, he is arrested and placed on probation and house arrest for drug dealing. He struggles to regain custody of his son, Loomis, a strangely intelligent and watchful boy, from his uncooperative mother-in-law and has little time for the hopeful Jonah. In what he intends as a gesture of brotherly friendship, Jonah kidnaps Loomis, meaning to take the boy to Troy. This desperate act ultimately leads to the dramatic yet real conclusion. A series of tightly interwoven flashbacks; deft handling of structure; and simple, precise language transform these characters' lives into a story that is highly readable, thought-provoking, and profoundly moving.-Matthew L. Moffett, Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Acclaimed storywriter Chaon (Among the Missing, 2001, etc.) affirms his matchless skill in crafting the small sketch, even as he struggles to conclude the weather-beaten plot of his first novel with large-scale grace. The initial handful of chapters here, in fact, read like a fresh collection of stories, distinguished as usual by the shy, cutting honesty of Chaon's prose. As these precisely dated chapters collect, the larger design of the whole emerges. Jonah and Troy share a mother. Troy was adopted out, while Jonah was raised by his mother and grandfather. Nearly all the characters here are adopted, in one way or another, some more than once. While his legal parents shred apart the last tendrils of their marriage, Troy is taken into a young family's circle. Jonah lives with his mother, herself an orphan, her wifeless father, and a Doberman pinscher. Each incident is expertly delineated as the narrative gathers momentum: Troy's early experiences with soft drugs and girls, Jonah's mauling by his grandfather's Doberman, and their mother's yearlong stay at a home for unwed mothers. When Jonah sets out to find the brother he's heard his mother mention, Chaon's taut mastery slackens. Hiring on as a cook where his half-brother works, Jonah learns that Troy, recently arrested for marijuana possession, has lost custody of his son Loomis. The tightly wound Jonah improbably attempts to "rescue" the boy back into Troy's custody, even as Troy continues to struggle with the new knowledge that he has a long-lost brother. The symmetries and compensations here are a bit too tidy, and though his final vignette leaves the reader astonished once again, the larger satisfactions of mature plot-making remainelusive for this powerful, promising writer. Author tour. Agent: Noah Lukeman/Lukeman Literary Management
From the Publisher
“You Remind Me of Me is one of the strangest, most beautiful, most compelling books I’ve read in a long time. Unnerving and real, intricately plotted, wonderfully written, it’s a Chinese box of a novel, full of hidden pleasures and surprises.”
—ELIZABETH MCCRACKEN, author of The Giant’s House
and Niagara Falls All Over Again
“[A] piercingly poignant tale of fate, chance, and search for redemption.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“One of Dan Chaon’s many gifts is his ability to probe deeply and delicately into sorrow. This gift serves him beautifully in You Remind Me of Me, a novel about adoption, about the quiet sadness that lies at the bottom of all his characters’ troubles.”
—JANE HAMILTON, author of A Map of the World
“Dan Chaon’s beautiful, effortless prose commands the reader from sentence one, steering us from prickling unease to wrenching pathos, tunneling inside his characters’ minds and worlds with such authority that everything else seems to disappear. It’s almost frightening to be in the hands of so gifted a writer.”
—JENNIFER EGAN, author of Look at Me and The Invisible Circus
“Beautiful, painful, and sure footed, You Remind Me of Me tracks the delicate connections between a handful of lost and poignant lives, in the process giving them the radiance of a stained-glass window. What a writer. Dan Chaon is going to have a breathtaking literary career.”
—PETER STRAUB, author of lost boy lost girl
“Dan Chaon’s novel, You Remind Me of Me, is nothing short of brilliant. The novel is haunting me, and I can’t stop thinking about it—both as a reader and as a deeply admiring writer. I wish I had a better adjective than superb.”
—CAROLINE LEAVITT, author of Girls in Trouble
Read an Excerpt
You Remind Me of Me
By Dan Chaon
Random House Copyright (C) 2004 by Dan Chaon
All right reserved.
March 24, 1977
Jonah was dead for a brief time before the paramedics brought him back to life. He never talks about it, but it’s on his mind sometimes, and he finds himself thinking that maybe it’s the central fact of the rest of his life, maybe it’s what set his future into motion. He thinks of the fat cuckoo clock in his grandfather’s living room, the hollow thump of weights and the dissonant guitar thrum of springs as the little door opened and the bird popped out; he thinks of his own heart, which was stopped when they got to him and then suddenly lurched forward, no one knew why, it just started again right around the time they were preparing to pronounce him deceased.
This was in late March 1977, in South Dakota, a few days after his sixth birthday.
If his memory were a movie, the camera would begin high in the air. In a movie, he thinks, you would see his grandfather’s little house from above, you would see the yellow school bus coming to a stop at the edge of the long gravel road. Jonah had been to school that day. He had learned something, perhaps several things, and he rode home in a school bus. There were papers in his canvas knapsack, handwriting and addition and subtraction tables that the teacher had graded neatly with red ink, and a picture of an Easter egg that he’d colored for his mother. He sat on a green vinyl seat near the front of the bus and didn’t even notice that the bus had stopped because he was deeply interested in a hole that someone had cut in the seat with a pocketknife; he was peering into it, into the guts of the seat, which were made of metal springs and stiff white hay.
Outside it was fairly sunny, and the snow had mostly melted. The exhaust from the bus’s muffler drifted through the flashing warning lights, and the silent bus driver lady caused the doors to fold open for him. He didn’t like the other children on the bus, and he felt that they didn’t like him either. He could sense their faces, staring, as he went down the bus steps and stood on the soft, muddy berm.
But in the movie you wouldn’t see that. In the movie you would only see him emerging from the bus, a boy running with his backpack dragging through the wet gravel, a red stocking cap, a worn blue ski jacket, stones grinding together beneath his boots, a pleasantly rhythmic noise he was making. And you would be up above everything like a bird, the long gravel road that led from the mailbox to the house, the weeds along the ditches, the telephone poles, barbed-wire fences, railroad tracks. The horizon, the wide plain of dust and wind.
Jonah’s grandfather’s house was a few miles outside of the small town of Little Bow, where Jonah went to school. It was a narrow, mustard-colored farmhouse with a cottonwood beside it and a spindly chokecherry bush in front. These were the only trees in view, and his grandfather’s place was the only house. From time to time a train would pass by on the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the house. Then the windows would hum like the tuning fork their teacher had shown them in school. This is how sound feels, their teacher said, and let them hold their fingers near the vibrating tines.
Sometimes it seemed to Jonah that everything was very small. In the center of his grandfather’s bare backyard, an empty pint of cream would be the house and a line of matchbook cars, Scotch-taped end to end, would be the train. He didn’t know why he liked the game so much, but he remembered playing it over and over, imagining himself and his mother and his grandfather and his grandfather’s dog, Elizabeth, all of them inside the little pint container, and himself (another part of himself) leaning over them like a giant or a thundercloud, pushing his makeshift train slowly past.
He didn’t call to his grandfather when he came into the house that day. The door banged shut, the furniture sat silently. He could hear the television talking in his grandfather’s room, so he knew his grandfather was there, dozing in the little windowless room, an addition to the house, just space enough for his grandfather’s bed and a dresser, a small TV and a lamp with curlicues of cigarette smoke around them. His grandfather was propped up against some pillows, drinking beer; an old blanket, pilled cotton, silk edges unraveling, was thrown across his grandfather’s middle, an ashtray balanced on it. Tired. His grandfather worked as a janitor, he went to work early in the morning, while it was still dark. Sometimes when Jonah came home from school, his grandfather would come out of his room and tell Jonah stories or jokes, or he would complain about things, about being tired, about Jonah’s mother—What’s the problem with her now? Did you do something to get her mad? I didn’t do anything to her!—and he would swear about people that he didn’t like, people who had cheated him, or maybe he would smile and call Elizabeth to him, Babygirl, babygirl, what are you doing there, does a babygirl want a piece of lunch meat does she? and Elizabeth would come clicking her nails across the floor, her bobbed tail almost vibrating as she wagged it, her eyes full of love as Jonah’s grandfather crooned to her.
But Jonah’s grandfather didn’t come out of his room that day, and Jonah dropped his bookbag to the floor of the kitchen. There was the smell of smoke, and fried eggs, and the old food in the refrigerator. Unwashed dishes in the sink. His grandfather’s door was half-closed, and Jonah sat at the kitchen table for a time, eating cereal.
His mother was at work. He didn’t know whether he missed her or not, but he thought of her as he sat there in the still kitchen. She worked at a place called Harmony Farm, packing eggs, she said, and the tone of her voice made him imagine dark labyrinths with rows of nests, a promenade of sad, dirty workers moving slowly through the passageways.
She wouldn’t talk about it when she got home. Often, she wouldn’t want to talk at all, wouldn’t want to be touched, would make their supper, which she herself wouldn’t eat. She would go to her room and listen to old records she’d had since she was in junior high, her eyes open and her hands in a praying shape beneath her cheek, her long hair spread out behind her on the pillow.
He could stand there for a very long time, watching her from the edge of the doorway and she wouldn’t move. The needle of the phonograph pulsed like a smooth car along the spiraling track of a record album and her eyes seemed to register the music more than anything else, her blinking coinciding with a pause or a beat.
But he knew that she could see him standing there. They were looking at each other, and it was a sort of game—to try to blink when she blinked, to set his mouth in the same shape as her mouth, to hear what she was hearing. It was a sort of game to see how far he could inch into the room, sliding his feet the way a leaf opens, and sometimes he was almost to the center of the room before she finally spoke.
Get out, she would say, almost dreamily.
And then she would turn her face away from him, toward the wall.
He thought of her as his spoon hovered over his cereal. One day, he thought, she wouldn’t come home from work. Or she might disappear in the night. He had awakened a few times: footsteps on the stairs, in the kitchen, the back door opening. From the upstairs window he saw her forcing her arm into the sleeve of her coat as she walked down the driveway. Her face was strange in the pale brightness cast by the floodlights that his grandfather had installed outside the house. Her breath lifted up out of her in the cold and drifted like mist, trailing behind her as she moved into the darkness beyond the circle of porch light.
We won’t be staying long, she would tell Jonah sometimes. She would talk about the places where they used to live as if they’d just come to Jonah’s grandfather’s house for a visit, even though they’d been living there for as long as he could remember—almost three years. He didn’t remember much about the other places she talked about. Chicago. Denver. Fresno. Had he been to these cities? He wasn’t sure. Sometimes things came in flashes and images, not really memories at all—a staircase leading down, with muddy boots outside of it; a man with a fringed jacket like Davy Crockett, asleep on a couch while Jonah looked inside his open mouth; a lamp with autumn leaves patterned on it; a cement shower stall where he and his mother had washed together. Sometimes he thought he remembered the other baby, the one that had been born before him. I was very young, she told him. That was all she would tell. I was very young. I had to give it away.
I remember the baby, he said once, when they were sitting together talking, when she was feeling friendly, holding him in her arms, running her fingernails lightly back and forth across his cheek. I remember the baby, he said, and her face grew stiff. She took her hand away.
No, you don’t, she said. Don’t be stupid. You weren’t even born yet. She sat there for a moment, regarding him, and then she shut her eyes, her teeth tightening against one another as if the sight of him hurt her. Jesus Christ, she said. Why don’t you just forget I ever told you anything. I mean, I confide in you with something that’s very private, and very important, and you want to play little pretend games? Are you a baby?
She sat there coldly, frowning, and began to gather and arrange her hair, ignoring him. She had long hair that reached almost to the belt-loops of her jeans. His grandfather said she looked like the country singer Crystal Gayle. Don’t you think she looks pretty, Jonah? his grandfather would say when he was trying to cheer her up, but she would only smile a little, not really happy. He watched as she shook a cigarette from her pack on the coffee table and lit it.
Don’t look at me that way, she said. She took a sip of smoke from her cigarette, and he tried to make his expression settled and neutral, to make his face the way she might want it to be.
Mom? he said.
Where do babies go when you give them away? He wanted to make his voice sound innocent, to talk in the way a child on television might ask about Santa Claus. He wanted to pretend to be a certain type of child, to see if she might believe in it.
But she didn’t. Where do babies go when you give them away? she repeated, in a high, insipid voice, and she didn’t look at him, she didn’t think he was cute or forgivable. He watched the rustle of her long hair, her hand as she ran the head of her cigarette against the rim of the ashtray.
They go to live with nice mommies, she said. After a moment she’d shrugged darkly, not liking him anymore, not wanting to talk.
But he did remember the baby, he thought. He and his mother had seen it at the market, being watched by a lady he didn’t know. The baby was pink-skinned, and had a tiny head without hair on it and it was inside something—a basket, he thought, a basket like apples came in at the grocery store. The baby was dressed in a green velvet suit with a Santa’s head on it, and rested on a red cushion. It moved its hands blindly, as if trying to catch air. Look, his mother said. There’s my baby! And a lady had looked at them, stiffening as his mother bent down to wave her fingers over the baby’s line of vision. The lady had looked at them, smiling but also frightened, and she had spoken to Jonah sharply.
Please don’t touch, the lady said. Your hands are dirty.
He remembered this vividly—not only because of the baby but because of the lady’s eyes, the way she looked at him, the sharp sound of her voice. It was the first time he really understood that there was something about him that people didn’t like.
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