A 13-year-old girl, a 50-something factory worker, a tired working mom and a small-town detective are all outcasts in small-town Kentucky, clinging to normalcy to cope with deep discontent.
They are all isolated in their own worlds, but those worlds collide –at first in small ways, then with growing frequency – when a woman’s disappearance causes them to re-examine their own lives.
In “The Next Time You See Me,” Holly Goddard Jones takes the girl-trouble theme she so expertly embraced in her debut short story collection and crafts a murder mystery that fuels considerable narrative momentum. What could have been simply a series of Altmanesque vignettes is a novel with deeply sympathetic characters in situations that leap off the page.
Goddard, who teaches in the creative writing program at UNC-Greensboro, opens with 13-year-old Emily Houchens – awkward, pudgy and quiet – providing the lens through which we see a confrontation between a popular classmate and their English teacher.
The scene evokes memories of Stephen King’s “Carrie,” a common trope in literature involving teens, but instead of veering toward the supernatural, the story turns rawly realistic when Emily stumbles upon a dead body after school.
Emily’s contribution to the plot is just one piece of the puzzle, grounded more in emotion and observation than insight. That element comes as we gradually learn more about the missing woman and the people she interacted with in the last days and hours of her life. The other major characters provide marked contrasts in their perspectives on themselves and on others.
Susanna Mitchell, the missing woman’s sister, is a schoolteacher with an oft-distracted husband, a preschool-age daughter and piles of dissatisfaction with her life choices. Her perfect-on-paper life is a foil for her sister’s hard-living ways. Regardless, when she discovers the woman’s missing, she plunges into a quest for answers that stirs up a variety of sentiments throughout Roma.
Wyatt Powell lives paycheck-to-paycheck in a small house with his dog, Boss. He has worked at the same factory his entire life and laments the changes he has seen through the years: the hiring of immigrant workers and the careless disregard of his fellow Roma natives, particularly the cocky college-age kids who make jokes at his expense every day. A night out with these coworkers creates more questions than answers in the case of the missing woman.
Tony Joyce, the small-town detective, is a former baseball player with a modest talent for drawing who sees this missing-person case as a springboard to a work promotion in a town that simmers with racism.
These characters dance around each other, intersecting to share some frustrations but withholding others. They all seek answers to the same questions and work toward them without the knowledge that each holds vital clues.
But even as news of the missing woman seeps through the town and grabs greater attention, everyday life intervenes. Susanna questions her commitment to her husband. Emily is the victim of a cruel lunchtime prank. Wyatt meets a sympathetic woman whose natural buoyancy stirs romantic feelings – and then has a crisis of his own. Tony fights bitterness over his life’s direction while trying to maintain his professional integrity.
The story of the missing woman – the nucleus around which the rest of the characters revolve – often takes a backseat to the day-to-day dramas of the other men and women. She is, in fact, the least finely-drawn character, a bit of a stereotype of the small-town girl gone bad, the woman who left a bad taste in people’s mouths but was generally accepted as a necessary ingredient in small-town life.
In contrast, the rest of the characters brim with sadness that’s palpable, the minutiae of their lives filling in the corners and propelling them on when they don’t seem to see their own ability to keep going. Each one is sympathetic: Their flaws are so ordinary and their potential for change so within reach. When the big whodunit reveal takes place, it’s almost entirely unwelcome based on the hope the author has inspired for these characters.
Jones’ writing career is off to a roaring start, with a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award in 2007 followed by accolades from People magazine and Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine. Her intimate understanding of the back roads of Southern culture provides a compelling foundation for a well of tales built on familiar themes but interpreted anew. However frankly sad her fiction is, it’s difficult to turn away from the world into which she’s invited us.