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Book Review

Overt Disasters Mirror Characters' Inner Losses

AMONG THE MISSING \o7 Dan Chaon\f7 , Ballantine: $22, 272 pages

July 27, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

These 12 short stories by Dan Chaon are lucidly written and seemingly easy to follow, but they proceed by indirection. The "missing" of the title aren't just those characters who have literally died or vanished. They include some who are living and present but stubbornly resist being known--even the narrators, estranged from themselves.

Chaon ("Fitting Ends and Other Stories") typically suggests this estrangement by making one situation, person or emotion stand for another, just as the recent widow in the opening story, "Safety Man," copes with grief by substituting an inflatable plastic dummy for her husband. She drives with the dummy (which allows single women to appear escorted) riding in the passenger seat; she sleeps next to the dummy and talks to him, and in the end the dummy seems to talk back.

In "I Demand to Know Where You're Taking Me," a woman whose brother-in-law has been convicted of serial rape has to care for his foul-mouthed macaw. Every obscenity the bird shrieks is evidence--to her--that he was guilty, though her husband and the rest of the family believe in his innocence. She feels alien from them all, and when the brother-in-law phones from prison to declare his love for her, it's more than she can handle. The only target her rage and fear can strike is the macaw.

In "Big Me," a boy from a small Nebraska town may have grown up in an abusive and dysfunctional family. That's the reality his brother remembers. But the narrator early on was able to escape into his mind. He imagined the town a big city, gave his neighbors important roles in it, cast himself as The Detective who solves the city's mysteries--so that what actually happened to him, as he looks back on it, is the biggest mystery of all.

In the title story, the "missing" at first appears to be a family who drove into a Midwestern lake and drowned in its car, not to be found for months. Then it appears to be the narrator's mother, whose lakeside cottage was nearby but who failed to see or hear the car. She later disappears. But what's really missing, it turns out, is sufficient love to have kept the narrator's parents together, or to keep mother and son close. The big, showy disasters mirror inner losses that can scarcely be expressed.

Chaon, who lives in Ohio, writes about ordinary people in the great middle of the country, people who mean well, for the most part, but are haunted by the coldness and distance that separates individuals in the tightest community or family. They see the emotional universe as astronomers see the physical one: as pinpricks of light amid light-years of darkness.

Sometimes, though the story itself is indirect, the theme is a universal one that we are made to confront immediately.

"Prodigal," for instance, deals with parents' dread that their beloved children will grow up to hate or disregard them, as they hated or disregarded their own parents.

Time, Chaon concludes, is the reason for much human loneliness--our inability to remember the past, to imagine the future, to empathize with others at different stages of life. In some stories, such as "Falling Backwards"--which literally goes backward from a woman's late middle age to her childhood, as she tries to probe the roots of her estrangement from her father and her son--Chaon finds inventive ways of exploring this idea.

Even in the more pedestrian stories, he is never less than competent. There's an understated assurance to his prose that wins us over, draws us in.

The only real drawback to "Among the Missing" is that these stories don't benefit much from being collected; there's a sameness to them, in tone and theme, that wouldn't be so noticeable if we read them as they were written, one at a time.

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