Kenneth, the hero of Gerard Woodward’s hefty fifth novel, “Vanishing,” has spent a lifetime getting kicked out of places. He’s been booted from a boys’ school for humiliating a schoolmate. An art school dumped him for hiring prostitutes as models.
And as the novel opens, the British Army isn’t too keen on keeping him around, either. Shortly after World War II he’s been painting landscapes near his hometown, which is about to be paved over for what is now Heathrow Airport, and Kenneth’s figured for a spy. After all, the land has “no aesthetic value whatsoever.” He’s up to his neck in unfair judgments.
Which is all the worse, given that he’s a well-intentioned war hero. The “vanishing” of the novel’s title mostly refers to Kenneth’s role as a camoufleur during the war, helping disguise Allied troop movements in North Africa.
As soldiers, he and his former art-school cohorts are out of the military mainstream: They come bearing “nets and garnish, like commercial travelers selling fashionable lingerie to lonely housewives,” as Woodward elegantly puts it.
But Kenneth has spent his whole life feeling different, and performing all sorts of vanishing acts in response. He’s hid the undistinguished family business (manure), his childhood cruelties, his nascent homosexuality and more. His book on camouflage techniques is titled, pointedly, “On the Art of Invisibility.”
No question, this is rich thematic material. But at nearly 500 pages, “Vanishing” also displays Woodward’s ungoverned urge to contemplate the theme in a host of contexts. The book is war novel, country novel, campus novel, coming-of-age novel, gay novel, courtroom novel, romance novel — and by the time it shifts into a utopian-commune-with-a-dark-secret novel, a fairly wearying novel. That’s unfortunate, because Woodward has a knack for sketching striking and memorable scenes.
As a child Kenneth visits a World War I vet on a neighboring farm who’s lost half his face. Smoking, his exhalations “just drifted out, which made it seem as if his head was on fire.” A line like that makes one wish for a whole novel on this man alone.
What’s disappointing about the breadth of the novel is that despite Woodward’s ambition, little seems at stake. Kenneth’s trial for his painting isn’t a drama so much as it is a setup for his life story, which for all its Dickensian perambulations is ultimately a mash note for Kenneth’s homely but memory-soaked hometown.
The places where we grow up are potent, and their destruction can be the stuff of memorable fiction. But here it’s just one story swallowed up by a few too many others.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.