For The Phoenix
After they found Kim's car in Sandusky the light of hope began to diminish. The car was hers. There could be no doubts, after all, not many blue Chevette's are extant in the late 2000's. Then there was the blue dolphin deodorizer hanging from the rearview. That was hers too. Then the scrunchies. Then the warning for speeding from the Sheriff back home. The Sheriff had told them that he had given her a warning back then, on that fateful day. Ed and Fran Larsen knew it was their daughter's car.
Kim Larsen was eighteen years old when she went missing. On a late summer afternoon she never made it home from a trip to the river. She never showed at work that night. Kim was the pride of her family. Her athleticism was legend in the small community, as were her good looks. Her friends all thought of her as strong-willed but fun and above all, a good friend. Stubborn but loyal. Just like her mom.
Songs For The Missing is one of the more uncomfortable novels I've read all year. It's almost too real. Too close to something we know and hold close to our hearts. Almost invariably we know someone too similar to Kim Larsen. As the weeks pile up and the cadaver dogs are called in we cannot help but feel the helplessness of the Larsen family. What if it were us that this was happening to?
Stewart O'Nan (Everyday People, Last Night At The Lobster) is possibly the best writer going when it comes to describing everyday life in America. Not privileged life. Not squalor. No power brokers grace his pages and no epic struggles are resolved. Everyday life is not epic. It is plodding and filled with joy, pain and often boredom in alternating and undisclosed measures. Everyday life in America is a favorite song or one that painfully reminds us of someone we no longer see.
O'Nan's greatest gift is his sense of current themes. He paints truly modern portraits. The emotional complexities of each character are rendered plain enough for all to see and understand. Perhaps O'Nan is at his utmost best when describing youth disillusioned. There is a not easily grasped mix of preternatural experience and well maintained naivety that O'Nan seems to be able to distill with precision.
Case in point: The Kim the family new is not the person she truly was. At heart she was a good daughter, full of potential and above all about to embark on a young, full life. They assumed she was smoking weed. Most kids her age and popularity did. They
knew she drank because they had caught her. They even were relatively certain she and her boyfriend, J.P. were having sex. They knew Kim had good sense, was on the pill and would make sure they used protection. They didn't like any of these things but some of them were hard to catch her in the act of.
There were things however, that they did not know. Worse still there are things they will never know.
Songs For The Missing is at once a tender story about family and a nightmarish work of horror. As the days pass by and Kim's fate remains unknown O'Nan asks the reader in polite but adamant prose to assess what is precious to them. What if it were missing? What if they never knew?
Like I said, it is one of the more uncomfortable books I've read this year.
Book Reviewed: Songs For The Missing by Stewart O'Nan. Penguin Books. Trade Paperback. $15.