The Great Forgetting: A Novel

The Great Forgetting: A Novel

by James Renner


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The Great Forgetting: A Novel by James Renner


When history teacher Jack Felter gets a call that his father, a retired pilot suffering from dementia, is quickly losing his last, precious memories, he reluctantly returns to bucolic Franklin Mills, Ohio. It’s been years since he’s been home. Jack has been trying to forget about Franklin Mills ever since Sam, the girl he fell in love with, ran off with his best friend, Tony. But Tony is gone, now. Vanished. Everyone assumes the worst.

Soon Jack is pulled into the search for Tony, but the only one who seems to know anything is Tony’s last patient, a paranoid boy named Cole. As Cole pulls Jack into his web of conspiracy theories, the two of them team up to follow Tony’s trail—and maybe even save the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250097415
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 01/10/2017
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 830,178
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

James Renner's first novel, The Man from Primrose Lane, was published in 2012. He teaches composition at Kent State University and is a contributor to BoingBoing, Cracked, and Cleveland Scene.

Read an Excerpt

The Great Forgetting

By James Renner

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 James Renner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71420-8



1 Later, Jack had time to wonder about how it all began. He understood how it ended. It ended in betrayal, destruction, death. But how did it begin? Could he follow the thread of his story back to a single moment in time where he might have saved everyone and everything? He could. He could. And he was surprised to find that this moment was rather mundane.

The day classes let out for summer, Jack returned to his apartment with a cardboard box of History Channel DVDs and found a blinking red light on his answering machine. His suite was on the sixth floor of a six-story tenement on Lakeshore and the elevator was on the fritz. Again. Out of breath, he set the box on the dining room table, aware, suddenly, of the emptiness here. This was not a home.

There was nothing on the walls. No photographs or paintings. It even smelled empty — that generic foodstuff aroma, ghosts of a thousand Stouffer's frozen dinners. The blinking red light demanded his attention. He pushed the button. It was his sister, Jean.

BEEP. "Jack. The Captain thinks I'm her again. He's back in Vietnam. He's getting closer. Thought you should know." BEEP.


"The Captain." That was their father, a retired Continental Airlines pilot. During the war he had flown cargo in and out of South Vietnam and had apparently taken up with a Saigon prostitute named Qi while living there. When he got really bad, the Captain called his daughter "Key," as in "Qi." He would yell at her: "No more Uncle Sams, Qi! Not for you." Once, he had backhanded Jean so hard he'd given her a black eye. Dementia. Alzheimer's maybe.

Jack didn't want to go back to Franklin Mills.

But he did.

Mostly, though, he didn't.

Jean wasn't calling to ask him to come home. She wanted to keep him in the loop was all. The Captain was coming in on final approach and it was likely to get bumpy before the end.

He didn't want to go back. Franklin Mills was full of traps. Jack traps. Because Samantha was there, too. Sam. But the only warmth in the entire apartment was a purple loofah a woman named Danielle had left behind three years ago.

Jack tossed some clothes into a bag. Ten minutes later he was in his rusting Saturn, driving south on 77, out of Cleveland, toward a town on the edge of a deep lake, a town with a single traffic light. A town full of secrets.

2 By the time he got there his father was sleeping again. The old man dozed in the hospital bed Jean had set up in the living room, where they used to watch monster movie marathons. Labored breaths ruffled the Captain's bushy white mustache back and forth like dune grass.

"He rearranged the fridge today," Jean whispered. "Said he wanted to help clean. What he did was he condensed all the half-empty jars to make room. He put the jelly in with the pickles and the ketchup in the pepper jar." She laughed quietly. "He's getting worse."

Jack led his sister onto the back porch, stepping lightly through the sliding glass door and quietly closing it behind them. Through the budding boughs of the oaks behind the house they could see the glassy black surface of Claytor Lake, a private swimming hole that had shuttered in 1984. All that remained was a rickety lifeguard stand that would surely tip over in the next summer storm. The breeze had a cool bite, like it was early April instead of the last day of May, but Jack didn't mind.

Jean lit a Winston Light, their mother's brand. She looked a lot like their mother: that straight hair the color of wet sand, those thin eyebrows and little mouth.

Virginia Felter should be here, taking care of the Captain. She had been capable enough, a rawboned lady who drove a bus for John F. Kennedy Consolidated. When she was still alive, Virginia was often found in the bus garage behind the high school smoking Winstons and talking shit with the mechanics. But four years ago, just before the Captain started in with his "transient ischemic attacks," Virginia suffered a massive coronary while hosing bugs out of number 8's grille. Dr. Palmstrum reckoned she was dead before she hit the ground.

And so the Captain was his children's burden. Mostly Jean's. Jack sent money. The Captain's pension helped some. And there was Continental stock. Still, watching over the Captain was a full-time job. Somehow Jean also managed to look after her six-year-old daughter, Paige.

"Mind if I stay on a bit?" he asked. "I could help you with the Captain."

"Of course," said Jean, exhaling ribbons of smoke that twisted over their heads like thin spirits. "Your room's all made up."

"I could watch Paige if you want to get out to a movie or something. You seeing anyone?"

Jean laughed and looked at her brother sideways.

"Hells no," she said. "Not with the Captain the way he is. It's slim pickin's around here. Might like to get together with Anna and catch a movie in Kent." Anna was her sponsor. She flicked the cigarette into the yard. Then she said, "What do you think of Nostalgia?"

Jack's breath caught in his chest. He'd seen the storefront of the new antiques place on his way through town. He smiled meekly and shook his head.

"Sam's there every day," said Jean. Her voice suggested a dare.

"Last thing she said to me was that she never wanted to see me again."

"That was before Tony disappeared," said Jean.

"Well, if she saw me, we'd have to talk about him."

"Get it out and over with."

"Nah," he said. He looked back toward Claytor Lake and shook his head.

"Anyway," said Jean, shrugging her shoulders and shivering a little.

"The Captain," prompted Jack. "If he gets worse, will he get violent?"

"He's on new meds for that."

"If he does, though, we'll have to take him up to St. Mary's."

"Not yet."

"What else do the doctors say?"

"That it ain't Alzheimer's. Something like it, though. They're still calling it dementia. Anything they don't understand is 'dementia.' Got him on antibiotics. He has low-grade pneumonia from aspirating food. We have to mash everything."

"How long?"

"Shit, Jack. A year? Maybe more."

"Make him right or make it quick," he whispered.


"Qi!" The Captain's voice, powerful and demanding, carried through the thick glass of the sliding door. "Qi! Dung noi gi voi nguoi linh do, goddamn it!"

"I don't know what the hell he's saying when he's like this," said Jean. "Why'd he have to go and learn Vietnamese?"

3 The Captain was sitting up, a knitted blanket covering his legs, shouting at them in that clipped Asian mountainspeak. He huffed angrily when he saw Jack. "Who the hell are you?" he asked. "Qi. Who the hell is this? Khong phai vay, Qi! Khong phai vay."

Jean stroked his father's arm. "Shh. Dad?" she tried. "Dad?" But his gaze remained fixed on Jack. "Captain Felter?" He looked up at his daughter. "Captain Felter, this is your son, Jack. You remember Jack."

The Captain squinted. Recognition washed over his face in a visible wave. "Johnny!" he said. "Hey, ya, buddy! Hey! Yeah. How you been?" His voice was dry, like an eight-track that had been played too much.

"Good," he lied. Jean nodded and then set off for the basement to fold clothes and give them a moment. Jack sat in the recliner, a ratty, worn tartan thing, frayed armrest showing the wood beneath. It had been his father's throne during forty-eight-hour turnarounds. It's where the Captain had sat when they played chess.

"Defense, Johnny. Don't worry about getting to my king yet. Anticipate my next move. Try to think what I'm thinking. Play your opponent."

"How are you, Pop?" he asked.

"Right as rain, my man."

"I'm going to stick around a while. Crash in my old room for a bit if you don't mind."

His father nodded, smiled. For a few seconds, the Captain continued to admire his son, but then his eyes began to dart about the room. The bookshelves were full of compendiums of America's wars: picture books of bloody battles, hunting magazines and National Geographics. Facing them was a tube TV and converter hooked to a dish. Fox News was on, muted (Thank God for small favors, thought Jack). On the wall behind the television were framed photographs: the Captain, his arms around two men in gray fatigues under wet jungle canopy; Jack, age four, high in a fir tree; Jean at twenty-one; Virginia, thinner than Jack had ever seen her, feeding the Captain a piece of cake from her hands inside a VFW hall.

"Isn't it amazing?" the Captain whispered.


"It looks just like our old house. How did they find all the same stuff? It all looks the same! Right down to that Winnie-the-Pooh cookie jar your mother bought at Busch Gardens in 1982."

Jack braced himself.

"Where do you think you are, Dad?"

"I don't know, man. But, listen, I walked outside earlier today and this isn't Park Avenue."

The Captain was born on Park Avenue in nearby Rootstown and had lived there until age nine. "You think you live on Park Avenue?" asked Jack.

The Captain laughed. "Well, uh, yes, Johnny, I do. That's where home is. This isn't home. They just want us to think it is." A pause. "Also, there's a woman here looks just like your sister."

"Dad, that is Jean."

"No, Jean was here yesterday. That's a different woman."

Jack flinched when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Jean squeezed, gently. "Just go with it," she whispered. "Don't argue. He'll just get confused and stop talking if you do. If he wants to live in the past, let him."

"So why are you home so early?" the Captain asked him. "Don't you have baseball practice? Coach Young is starting you at shortstop Tuesday."


"Oh, okay." He licked his lips and stared at his daughter, embarrassed that he didn't know the strange woman's name.

"Some ginger ale?" asked Jean.


After Jean walked away, he caught Jack's attention and pointed to the cabinet below the nearest bookcase. "Get it out," he demanded.

"I don't know, Pop."

"Don't be such a vagina. Let's play chess."

For the next hour and a half, they did. Jack played four games against his father. By the end, he wasn't holding back. He used conservative openings and strong defenses, but the Captain won every game. Whatever was eating away at his memories, it had not yet consumed the files where he kept chess strategy.

"You still only see your pieces," the Captain sighed as he dropped the rooks back in the Parker Brothers box. "Chess is about anticipating your opponent's agenda. You have to play both sides."

4 She wore a furry yellow-and-black costume and shook with excitement, the fat girl with the colorless hair. "Uzzzzzzzz," said Paige, her eyes closed as she conjured her best bumblebee impression. She reminded Jack of that girl from the Blind Melon video.

Paige balanced on a red plastic stool so that Jean could make alterations to her costume — her first-grade class was staging an end-of-school "Backyard Zoo" pageant. Jean bent over, pins sticking out of her mouth as she tried to secure the stinger. "Hold still, sweetie," she kept saying.

"I could sting you, Uncle Jack, but then I'd have to die," Paige said, suddenly serious.

"Why would you die?" he asked.

"See this stinger," she said, wiggling her backside, pulling it out of her mother's hands. "It's full of barbs. If I sting you, it sticks and then rips off my butt and my belly goes spilling out the hole."

"Paige! Jesus," said Jean.

"It's a fact," she said. "Also, I'm a queen bee. I'd be a worker bee but they musta fed me royal jelly."

In the dining room Jack was helping the Captain with a bowl of chicken dumpling soup that had passed through the blender. It was a hot mess of meat and dough and broth. The Captain watched a nine-inch portable TV propped up on the table. Above the Fox News scrawl, helicopter footage showed a charred black crater burning silently a mile from downtown Ferguson. A drone strike had killed a dozen domestic terrorists. Free Will Baptists. They'd packed a U-Haul with explosives and were planning on taking down the St. Louis arch.

"I'm glad you're here, Butch," the Captain said, patting Jack's hand. "Glad you're home."

Butch was his father's brother. But Butch had never come home. He had died inside Tan Son Nhut Air Base during the Tet Offensive.

"You're welcome," said Jack.

"Uzzzzzz," said Paige. He concentrated on her voice and fed the Captain another spoonful of soup.

5 There was only one bar in Franklin Mills, down by the traffic light at the center of town. The Driftwood was a dimly lit workaday pub with a paint-chipped juke and one pool table, a ten-minute drive from the house. Along the way Jack scanned the shadowed country roads, drawing down memories like a different sort of draft.

There was the redbrick cheese store where a bully named Chris once lived. One night when they were fourteen, he and Tony rode their Huffy Pro Thunder two- speeds out here at three in the morning and lit a nest of firecrackers under Chris's bedroom window. A large, hairy-chested man in white briefs had come crashing out of the front door, swinging an antique scythe. I git you motherfuckers! he screamed.

There was the spot where he'd hit a patch of black ice on his way to pick up Sam one morning, sending his Subaru into a spin that had deposited him in the wrong lane moments behind a semi bound for Youngstown.

And there, slipping out of the darkness: a giant stone church attached to a squat brick building — St. Joe's. Jack went to school there until seventh grade. It was where the local Boy Scout troop met on Tuesday nights. It was where he met Tony.

He fell in love with Tony before he fell in love with Sam. And it happened the same way it did with women: all at once.

* * *

In 1992, Troop 558 met inside the pole barn behind the church. It was a den of boys and a museum dedicated to their wayward adventures. On the back wall hung framed photographs of Boy Scouts in khaki uniforms at Camp Manatoc (in the winter) and Camp Algonkin (in the summertime). In the center was a panoramic: a contingent of older scouts grouped on a plateau at Philmont. On another wall hung wooden shingles in tidy rows, arranged by patrol unit. On each shingle was the name of a boy. An American flag was tied to a wobbly pole in the corner by the space heater. Wide shelves displayed awesome relics, like an Indian chief's peacock- feather headdress and a pair of wooden Bigfoot feet that could be tied around your shoes. There was also a stuffed and mounted bird that looked sort of like a dodo, provenance unknown. In winter, the two space heaters made it so hot inside that it felt like you were wrapped in a woolen blanket. It was winter when Jack noticed Tony sitting below the dodo, reading a textbook.

Tony was an eighth-grader at John F. Kennedy public. He was a skinny kid with poky knees and a sharp jawline. He wore wire glasses and his hair was spiky, a strange yellow-orange from cheap spray lightener. Jack unfolded a wooden chair and dragged it over to him.

"Christ," said Jack. "Is that for one of your classes?"

Tony adjusted his specs and bit at a nail. "It's my mom's. She's taking a class at Kent. Nights. It's psychology."

"You wanna be a shrink?"

"No. I'm going to own a bunch of batting cages. Make some real money. I'm going to drive a bimmer. That's a BMW. My first car's going to be a BMW. Bet me."

"I believe you."

Tony looked up then. "I've seen you before. We were at Claytor Lake one summer before it closed. Your mother knows my mother."

"I don't remember."

"Yeah, you were playing with the Rizzi twins on the barrels."


Excerpted from The Great Forgetting by James Renner. Copyright © 2015 James Renner. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part One: Time Enough at Last,
i. Stopover in a Quiet Town,
ii. Perchance to Dream,
iii. Elegy,
Part Two: Where Is Everybody?,
i. The Lonely,
ii. Young Man's Fancy,
iii. Come Wander with Me,
iv. The Whole Truth,
Part Three: The Fugitive,
i. Person or Persons Unknown,
ii. Escape Clause,
iii. A Penny for Your Thoughts,
iv. Back There,
v. To Serve Man,
vi. Passage on the Lady Anne,
vii. The Mind and the Matter,
viii. The Last Flight,
Part Four: The Lateness of the Hour,
i. The Invaders,
ii. Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
Part Five: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,
i. On Thursday, We Leave for Home,
ii. It's a Good Life,
iii. The Changing of the Guard,
iv. People Are Alike All Over,
A Prologue,
A Note About the Author,
Also by James Renner,

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The Great Forgetting: A Novel 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
LezGibson More than 1 year ago
To keep this short and sweet, and to the point: This is the best novel I've read since "The Martian." I was hooked only just a few pages in to the point I hated to lay it down for the night. Renner did an excellent job with the flow of the story, helped by blending elements of sci-fi, mystery, thriller, and even a little bit of romance. The introduction starts strong and the conclusion, in my opinion, is epic. I was only disappointed because it had to come to an end.