Book Review by Heidi Simmons
“Among The Missing”
This week’s short story collection is by author Dan Chaon (pronounced Shawn). Chaon’s Among the Missing (Ballantine, 274 pages) contains twelve intimate stories conveying the intricacies of how family dynamics shape and impact our lives. A finalist for the National Book Award, and named one of the year’s best ten books by the American Library Association, every story is a good one.
The book’s title, Among the Missing, is a thematic representation of what Chaon’s entire collection is about. In every story, someone is missing; whether by death, abandonment, disappearance or imprisonment. The stories are not about those who are gone, but mainly about those who remain behind picking up the pieces, making sense of the void and the affect it has on their own lives.
In “Big Me,” Andrew, an adult, recalls his twelve-year-old self when a curious stranger moves into town. It’s his first memory of childhood: “Before that, everything was a peaceful blur of childhood.” Andrew likes to play detective, snooping around town and keeping notes. He comes to imagine the man is the grown version of himself.
There are moments when he crosses the line, breaking into the home and going through personal belongings. But it’s his observations about his own family as an adult and brief reminiscing with his older brother, that help him better understand his childhood as well as the strange man. The “big me,” Andrew, finally gets a better perspective about the tragic collapse and disintegration of his family.
“Passengers, Remain Calm,” is the story of a sibling stepping in to care for his brother Wayne’s son after the he takes off. Hollis is confused and sad that Wayne would leave his beautiful family without saying anything to him. Hollis realizes he and his brother were never close — that their mutual respect was simply a blood related family tie.
The narrator reports: “And it strikes him suddenly, a heavy blow. Wayne knew he was leaving, even as they sat there laughing and telling stale jokes. But he would never have told Hollis. Hollis can see himself as they see him, even as they are making their secret plans and living their secret lives.” Hollis decides to be better than his brother — honest and trustworthy. He wants his relationship with his nephew to matter and helps fill the void his brother left. Of the collection, I found this story to be the most touching, thoughtful and redeeming.
When the youngest brother, Wendell, goes to jail for serial rape in “I Demand To Know Where You Are Taking Me,” the sister-in-law ends up with all his belongs in her garage and his crude, talking Macaw in her living room. Since her husband, an attorney, failed to get his brother an acquittal, there is an increase in family tension. As the relationships crumble, she comes to grasp that the one person in her husband’s family she appreciated was Wendell, her imprisoned brother-in-law. When he contacts her, she realizes he has always been in love with her. Nauseated by the idea and disgusted by his foul-mouthed bird, she throws the molting Macaw out in the cold and thinks: “What am I doing in this family.” It’s difficult being an outsider in what would appear to be a close family.
The title story, “Among the Missing,” opens with a family finally discovered after being reported missing for months — their car pulled from the lake, bodies still seat-belted in place. The narrator describes the horror of the incident which unravels just yards away from his mother’s cabin where he’s staying. He can’t understand how his mother could not have heard anything when the car went in the lake.
Living with his mother while taking a break from college, he starts to question the relationship between his parents. His mother is older than his father; they separated but never divorced. When he discovers his mother has gone missing, he says: “Looking back, I realize that this was my last chance to get to know her. I would never again live at home — apart from occasional visits at Christmas or Independence Day. Sometimes I think that if I’d only been paying more attention, I might have been prepared for what happened to her later. It might not have happened at all, had I been watching for the signs that I can now only search for in my memory.”
In this collection, Chaon reminds us that no matter how hard we try, there is no perfect family. And further, that childhood is a minefield we are fortunate to survive. Our memories of the past are subjective and may have little to do with reality. Siblings can give us perspective and parents can give us guidance but the hard truth is we are always on our own.
Author Chaon rarely writes a linear narrative, which is unusual for short stories. But without the reader getting lost or confused, he artfully weaves his character’s past and present to elicit surprise and suspense.
What makes this collection so strong is that the stories are diverse but build on one single theme: There is always something missing in the story of our lives. Interesting that Chaon himself was adopted as a child. That may be why this is his most powerful work. Besides being entertaining (and terrific prose), the collection challenges the reader to consider one’s own family and how it shapes who we are.