Lost and Found
By Peter BirkenheadMay 19, 2014
Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston
WE SEE THEM on the news, holding photos of daughters who never came down for breakfast. Or huddled in airports, waiting for information about planes that have mysteriously disappeared. We catch glimpses of them napping on cramped couches in Intensive Care units, or rocking back and forth on courtroom benches — wondering what they did to deserve being cast adrift, within sight but not reach of land; wondering how it’s possible for time to neither continue nor mercifully end, but simply pause.
In Bret Anthony Johnston’s quietly devastating debut novel, Remember Me Like This, “they” are Laura and Eric Campbell, whose son Justin Campbell, 11 at the time of his disappearance, has been missing from his Southport, Texas, home for four years. They are still posting fliers in shop windows around town and the neighboring Corpus Christi, still searching missing children websites, still celebrating Justin’s birthday and buying him Christmas presents.
But they’re barely hanging on. Their connections to each other are fraying, being eaten away by fatigue, guilt, and corrosive hope. They speak in clipped phrases that barely hint at the cacophony of their inner lives.
Laura channels a hyper-attentive, almost frenetic energy into monitoring a sick dolphin at an animal rescue lab. She rides the ferry back and forth across the bay late at night. She steals bottles of nail polish, slashes at her palms and wrists with seashells, and throws sweet tea in the face of a stranger who tells her “I’m still just so broken up about your boy.”
Eric, a high school history teacher, has been, in the words of a neighbor, “disfigured” by his grief, “[...] slackened. Each week there seemed a little less of him.” He finds a kind of numb comfort in a halfhearted affair with a surgeon’s wife, but Justin’s disappearance has left him estranged from himself:
And then this familiar thought: How did I get here? The pieces that made up his life seemed pulled from another man’s existence. [...] Sometimes he’d pass the closed door of Justin’s room and forget for a beautiful moment that he was gone. How often in the last four years had he almost knocked? Then, when his thoughts fitted themselves to reality, he felt cored out and drugged, groping awkwardly through his days as if he’d lost a limb in an accident, an arm or a leg whose weight he still anticipated.
His and Laura’s younger son, Griff, spends long, solitary afternoons mastering and then surpassing the skateboarding skills his brother was once famous for, and sidling up to first love with a sardonic, tender-hearted classmate who dyes her hair bright orange.
But the world suddenly reverses its backward spin when the Campbells hear the news that Justin has been found, alive, just a short drive away in Corpus Christi. The scene of their baffled, tender reunion with their now 15-year-old son can’t help but evoke the many similar and now sadly familiar stories from recent years of children emerging from basements or mountain hideouts into the arms of euphoric loved ones. This is the moment when, often, the news reports end, but Johnston is interested in what happens next, after that first, tentative embrace.
His focus on the stubbornly irrational realm of his characters’ inner lives makes Remember Me Like This a kind of anti-procedural, a crime story with very little crime, the kind of thriller in which the characters stalk themselves. Johnston is less interested in who-done-it than in how we do it: how we keep going, how we find the courage to know each other and ourselves, how we let go while holding on.
Almost as distressing to Eric and Laura as the fact of Justin’s captivity is that it happened so close to home. The idea that he had been only a few miles away — that he had visited stores they’d been in, that he’d been seen by dozens, hundreds of people, that he had been findable — is almost too much for them to bear. They are relentless in their self-critical second-guessing: Should they have put up more flyers? Put them in different places? Searched more, searched less, searched smarter? Should Griff have told the police about the fight he had with Justin the day he disappeared? Should he have accepted Justin’s invitation to skate with him that afternoon?
They are deeply frightened of saying something that might remind Justin of his ordeal and shut him down, of doing anything that might lose him to them all over again. And they’re almost as careful with, and resentful of, each other. They monitor each other and chafe at the scrutiny. Laura throws herself into taking care of Justin with the same energy she used to devote to sleepless nights and dolphin monitoring, but is nevertheless distracted by Eric’s scrutiny:
She makes [...] lists of what she wanted to monitor with Justin: his eating habits, any aversion to specific TV shows, any tendencies to grow angry or clam up around certain topics of conversation. Eric, she knew, worried that she might read something that would pull the rug out from under her again. She could feel him studying her, silent and skeptical and beseeching, waiting for her to deliver terrible news, as if her reading about something would coax it into reality.
They exhaust each other. Justin remains almost as much of a mystery to himself as he is to his family, only dimly aware of his own anger about not being found sooner. Confronted by daily evidence of the physical and psychic distance between who he was and who he is now, he gropes for understanding. He takes long drives; he moves the furniture in his room around every couple of days. Griff, almost as lost as his older brother, is afraid to ask why;
Maybe changing up the room was meant to signal a new beginning. Or maybe there was nothing to be read into it at all. Now, with Justin, there always seemed to be the promise — or threat — of a sign, a symbol that required decoding. [...] He felt simultaneously older and younger around his brother, unsure whom their parents had left in charge. It was how he felt in general lately: clueless as to who meant what to whom.
But Griff notices, as do his mother and father, that he is occasionally overwhelmed with mortification in Justin’s presence, and they all three feel the growing presence of something unsettling, yet bracing. Is it a new kind of self-awareness? Enlarged perception? At one time or another, Laura, Eric and Griff each use the word “awe”— a strange word in this context — to describe the experience.
It’s in these moments, in the family’s simultaneous experience of clarity and confusion, that we witness the tidal contradictions of the Campbell’s — of every parent’s — anxiety, its heart-opening as well as heartbreaking properties, the way doubt can burn a path to clarity, the way fear is inextricable from hope. The way trauma can carve a new kind of meaning into lives that were once ordinary.
In his patient attention to the Campbell’s terror, Johnston is able to mine something wild and essential at its root. You could probably call it love, although it’s certainly not romantic, or anything like the “hug your kids” sentimentality that is such a close cousin to the things it fears. It is elemental, as primitive as a hurricane, and most clearly revealed in moments of stillness — a mother resisting the impulse to tousle her son’s hair, a father “fighting not to tremble,” a teenager waiting silently outside his brother’s closed bedroom door. Johnston intuitively grasps the way a family of many years, subjected to many years more of displacement — from one of their own, from each other, and from what they used to think of as the real world — might develop a profound new sense of what is real, and of who they are.
Our picture of who they are accrues slowly, in fine layers, as their new curiosity about themselves draws each of them into examining their own histories. Eric’s father, Cecil, is the kind of man for whom other men “afford(ed) the berth they’d give a mad dog.” There were “stories” about Cecil. Eric is haunted by his failure to live up to the John Wayne version of manhood his father represents, and Cecil himself is haunted by his failure to grieve the loss of his wife years before. Laura rummages feverishly through the past to uncover a stark, vivid memory of her mother anxiously mending a torn party dress while admonishing her about the precariousness of a woman’s life.
Johnston shifts with deceptive ease between the voices of his characters, each distinct and distinctly alive. There are occasional echoes of John Ford movie heroes and Hank Williams songs in both Eric’s, and especially Cecil’s, wry, aphoristic half-sentences, a hint of melodrama that measures the distance between who the characters are and who they want to be, a gap that tempts them to near-tragic overreaching.
John Wayne’s (and John Ford’s) best movie, The Searchers, the 1956 masterpiece about the rescue of a white girl kidnapped by the Cherokee, is unavoidably referenced in Remember Me Like This, but Eric has more in common with a less imposing Ford hero: Jimmy Stewart as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or maybe Warren Beatty in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: smart, sensitive dudes desperate to convince themselves, and their women, of their capacity for violence.
Eric perceives a softness in himself (a “cowardice” is how he puts it) that he finds intolerable. His worst fear and most troublesome need are one and the same: that Justin might finally hold him accountable for not finding him sooner.
Eric was unsure of what to say. What to do. What to feel. For a moment everything seemed arrested, inert. Justin’s expression reminded Eric of the look on Laura’s face when she spoke of beached dolphins — the son’s resemblance to his mother at that moment was uncanny, intimidating and indicting — and Eric recognized the emotion that the expression always failed to mask: pity. What he wanted, what he needed, was for Justin to yell and curse him. Berate him. Punish him. [...] When Justin left the room, Eric was disgusted by the depth of his relief. Pathetic, he thought. Unforgivable.
Johnston himself was raised in Corpus Christi, and his story inhabits its setting like a longtime native, unselfconsciously familiar with the wary rhythms and subtle codes of South Texas and the Gulf. Shaped as it is by insistent, subtropical cycles of disaster, collapse and rebuilding, a Gulf life is, in Johnston’s telling, more explicitly provisional than others, the kind of life that might circle more than once through pawn shops like the one owned by Cecil, its long, metal shelves lined with the detritus of aspirations deferred: golf clubs, power tools, paintings and tea sets that were meant to accompany long and formidable lives, lives that would bend in the wind.
The Campbell’s ordeal bends them, imbues them with a deep and raw-nerved empathy. But they, each of them, seem to have always possessed a certain resilient, bendable, “abiding decency,” a reflexive selflessness which, under stress, verges on self-abnegation.
A plot turn late in the story — Justin’s abductor, Dwight Buford is let out on bail — invites a new and savage dread into the Campbell’s lives, and it leaves “each of them, in one way or another, scared of the other three” and freshly vulnerable to the ravages of their own feral love. A “gully washer” of a storm, “a real toad strangling rain” approaches Corpus Christi. Chaos looms, and violence seems likely, but the Campbell’s are more storm-ready than they realize. As Laura rushes to stave off catastrophe, she considers her husband:
Even with his newfound stoicism, Laura saw him as a child. He was a boy at the top of a high dive who couldn’t bring himself to jump, a boy who’d stay up there until night fell and he could descend the ladder in the dark. [...] She wanted to slap him across the face to wake him up, for he seemed to have dreamed himself into a life that didn’t exist. And yet she couldn’t remember a time when she loved him more.
That’s the kind of love that can, eventually, win the day. Hard fought-for, clear-sighted, humane. The love of people who see each other, and who deserve to be more visible in our literature. Remember Me Like This closes with an epilogue that unites the Campbell’s fulsome, post-storm voices in a tentative series of unanswerable questions, a perfect grace note that evokes the book’s most arresting and indelible image: of four terrified and broken creatures seated around a kitchen table, moved by an impulse beyond their comprehension to reach for each other’s hands, close their eyes, and bow their heads.
Peter Birkenhead is a writer living in Washington, DC. His memoir Gonville was published in 2010.
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