For years I’ve been saying that I need to keep better track of how I find books. I thought about this again when I picked up Scott Heim’s We Disappear and almost immediately wished I could offer a personal thank you to whoever recommended it.
Scott is a freelance writer living in New York City. Well, “living” might be too broad a term; he’s a writer, yes, but he’s also a meth addict, hiding out in his apartment most days and devoting his time to his high. Scott’s mother Donna lives in Haven, Kansas, just outside Hutchinson. She calls Scott to tell him that a seventeen-year-old boy named Henry Barradale was found murdered. She sends him newspaper clippings about the story and calls him regularly with updates. She bids him to come home to they can investigate together what happened to Henry, perhaps find his murderer.
Donna is suffering from terminal lung cancer. She’s a former prison tower guard at a maximum-security prison and True Detective (the magazine, not the television show) fanatic. Scott realizes her phone calls and sudden interest in Henry’s murder are really about something else, so he relents and agrees to visit. As it turns out, Henry’s murder is not the real mystery she wants to solve. We learn that the missing—the disappeared—have been an obsession of Donna’s since Scott and his sister Alice were children, when a Haven boy named Evan Carnaby vanished:
“The boy had disappeared during the time our mother was drinking, those weeks and months so long before her real disease, and soon she began staying up, quiet leaden midnights and beyond, to search for information on Evan and more missing souls. I remember hunkering downstairs to find her in the darkened kitchen, absorbed in her new undertaking. The staggering breathing, the rustle of newspapers, the sudden glint of scissors…In the mornings, Alice and I would wake to find all the faces watching us, Evan and his vanished companions, their photographs taped and pasted and pinned to our kitchen walls.”
Scott returns to find his mother similarly obsessed with Henry Barradale. The dashboard of Donna’s truck is covered in pictures of the missing, and when he arrives at the house she proudly shows him the kitchen walls she’s transformed with the same sort of clippings that she’d “taped and pasted and pinned” all those years ago. She also has an idea, a project for the two of them: a book about the missing in Kansas. She’s placed classified ads in newspapers in cities like Hutchinson and Emporia and Wichita, looking for families of the missing who want to talk, to tell their stories:
“Perhaps I hadn’t fully grasped my mother’s determination. I wasn’t certain she understood the gravity, the possible danger: could she actually exploit these despairing family members or friends with all her promises, her false guarantees? Would she still discuss our fictitious research and resulting work? Her detective work, Dolores had called it.”
When Scott arrives home and his mother’s best friend Dolores picks him up at the bus station (he’s had to take the bus because he’s carrying meth to see him through his visit), he realizes immediately that his other’s disease has progressed much more than he realized. They haven’t got much time, and so he agrees to go along with most of his mother’s schemes and wishes, even when he feels it’s against better judgment (although whose better judgment is questionable, since everyone in the story is afflicted in some way that affects their faculties).
As it does in Gillian Flynn’s work, Kansas itself also becomes a sort of character in the book: the small towns, the farms, the flat, cold landscape that Scott realizes he sought to escape but carries with him:
“Along the narrow avenues were houses with shattered windows, with gardens of car parts and sandburs and tumbleweeds. I watched her scribble street names on her notepads, names that might once have been functional but now were simply silly: Cowherder Street, Barley Boulevard, God’s Green Way.”
A way of life has disappeared, one that’s reflected in the antiques in Donna’s house:
“The bronze chandelier with its drops of glass…the old firkin sugar bucket, clumped with dried roses…the Dazey butter churn. Most of the antiques had remained in our family for years. Others I hadn’t seen before, her recent discoveries from junkyards and auctions. I stepped around the room, straightening the picture frames, examining the rows of dolls in the glass china cabinet.”
We Disappear is one of those books where it’s difficult to know what might be a spoiler, so as far as plot, I’ll leave it at that even though there’s so much more. The story is told in the first person, and Scott is a compelling narrator, and it’s difficult to not to empathize with him. Everyone in this book is disappearing or disappeared in some sense, whether through illness or memory or reality, but Scott in particular has always felt invisible in some ways—a gay teenager in small-town Kansas, escaped to the big city where instead of finding himself he found the drug that would cause him to disappear even further. He’s an addict, and he makes no bones about the fact, but neither does he glamorize it or use it to shame, blame, or confuse other people. Instead, Scott does everything in the book despite his addiction, and I think that’s one of the things that keeps the book from dragging the reader around in the hopelessness of it all.
Here’s something I can’t quite figure out: as dark as this book is, I enjoyed it thoroughly. We Disappear features a meth addict, a cancer victim, a lonely alcoholic, and countless missing or murdered men, women, and children. Yet something redeeming exists, and I think ultimately that thing is love. Scott loves his mother, even with all her eccentricities, even with all his frustration at her and at himself. He knows that she loves him. It isn’t that they aren’t flawed people, but more that Heim doesn’t really let the flaws and dysfunction get in the way of the love, and that’s as unusual in a novel as in life. Hope beats steadily beneath the narrative, which makes it easy for the reader to keep going, to keep hoping.