- Road to Recovery
Novels about child abduction are legion, from short-term crises to long-term sequestering and the unthinkable realm of no return. Part of the public’s fascination with such cases, undoubtedly, has to do with the terribleness of the event, coupled with a desire to see what kind of evil would commit such a deed. Yet abduction literature usually focuses on the bereaved family members, as well: how they get through their days knowing that, out there, someone has their loved one, and who knows what’s happening to that person?—or even whether the victim is alive or dead.
Bret Anthony Johnston’s first novel, Remember Me Like This, stakes out some of this territory but has greater ambitions than mere sensationalism. The novel explores the psychology of loss and the mundane aspects of daily bereavement after a child vanishes, not just for days, but as the months stretch into four years. And then—here is Johnston’s bold maneuver—the child returns to the family. Life can begin again but with the recognition that nothing will ever be the same.
Johnston sets the novel in the Texas port city that he deftly chronicled in his short story collection, Corpus Christi (2005). This is the city spanned by a harbor bridge that attracts suicides; the city never far from the sea, with unceasing daily heat during the summer; the city that sponsors an annual festival called the Shrimporee. Average people, average lives. Against this backdrop, the Campbells, the family of the abducted boy, also seem unexceptional: the well-meaning but wounded parents Eric and Laura; their remaining son Griff, hurt by his parents’ emotional shutdown; and Eric’s father, a tough old bird named Cecil, who runs a pawnshop. Into the gap that their lives have become, steps the missing older brother, Justin, who reappears one day as if coming back from a long walk.
During the years of absence, Laura has taken to volunteering at a Sea Lab to care for a sick dolphin. Eric has also withdrawn from the family, pursuing an affair with a woman across town. Griff has grown older without an older brother. The grandfather’s cynical outlook has only hardened over time. At the beginning of Justin’s absence, their existence was fraught with anxiety, every conversation with neighbors and friends a potential injury: “Who would be the first to speak of him in the past tense? Some nights they went to bed feeling as though they’d been holding their breath for hours.” Laura and Eric’s tries at maintaining intimacy are failures. Yet, as Diane Ackerman once observed, life goes on, having nowhere else to go.
Johnston is a great chronicler of domestic normalcy: laundry, shopping, chores, and barbecues—the texture of everyday life, often rendered with a lyricism that uplifts the merest detail: “They ate as the sun dropped behind the fence, and a heathered dusk fell over everything.” Recalling Justin as a child, Laura experiences “Gauzy strands of memory, like she’d walked through a spider-web.” After Justin returns, a hazy light of recovered joy and gratitude hovers over a lot of the action, but the Campbells are also fearful of what’s been done to their son and outraged that the perpetrator is still unpunished. To a great extent, they live in a state of waiting, which is not that outwardly dramatic. What does Justin enjoy now? What does he like to eat? The parents want to know all about their son again, yet doubt their ability to reconnect:
“Are you hungry?” Eric said. “I can fix silver dollars again.”
“I’m good,” said Justin.
In the dark, the gray clouds were unspooling, fraying, giving up. Eric wished he hadn’t asked about the pancakes, for now he suspected that Justin hadn’t loved them as much as he’d claimed.
The reaction seems quite genuine, the cloud description poignant, but maybe sometimes Johnston should nudge his characters along more.
As for the abductor, Dwight Harrell, a...