Sam Simoneaux is too late. On the day his army regiment arrives in France in 1918, it's announced that an armistice has been signed, and Simoneaux is sent on detail blowing up undetonated mines. He was born too late to remember his family, the members of which were massacred in their home while 6-month-old Sam hid, stashed in the stovepipe. And when a young couple approach him in the New Orleans department store he supervises, their 3-year-old daughter has already been abducted, and there's little Sam can do to find her. Still, he'll try.
From here -- we're about 30 pages in right now -- the pace of Tim Gautreaux's new novel, "The Missing," only picks up. The quickness is deceptive, though, as the story is told in a glacial "Hi, y'all," drawl that might seem hokey were it not for Gautreaux's mastery of the dialect, which he's exhibited in two previous novels and several short stories.
In hopes of finding the missing girl, Simoneaux takes a job on a showboat and looks for clues everywhere the ship docks. Gautreaux has written an incredibly interesting story, its plot perpetually reinvigorated by the kidnapping and its complications, and several tangential -- but captivating -- revenge missions.
"The Missing" is no mere whodunit, though. As Gautreaux guides us back and forth across the Deep South, his characters' paths weave deeper motifs into the fabric of the text. The theme of being too late leads to a theme of irretrievable loss -- the preemptive loss of memories -- seen in Simoneaux's growing desire to learn more about his murdered family. And everyone in "The Missing" has lost something. Loss seems to be the admission price to enter this story, which is peopled almost exclusively by parents who've lost their children, or children who've lost their parents. (Simoneaux fits squarely into both groups.)
It's Sam's stunted attempts to find meaning amid this loss that makes "The Missing" memorable. While he may (or may not) track down a missing child, he comes to understand it's impossible to locate memories he never possessed. More than any plot, the unfairness of this deprivation is what he -- and any attentive reader -- will try to reconcile for a long time to come.
Max Ross blogs at crackingspines.tumblr. com. He lives in Minneapolis.