The end of happily ever after
I know the novel you’re looking for. It’s the thriller that also has interesting sentences. It’s the one with a driving plot but fully realized characters as well, the one that flows like it was plotted by Dennis Lehane but feels like it was written by Jonathan Franzen. The high-end potboiler. The literate page-turner. It’s a surprisingly rare breed even though it’s so obviously the novel we all want. Fortunately, there’s Bret Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This (Random House, $26). The most interesting books of the past couple years have been fusions of the literary and the genre: high-art science fiction and reappropriated westerns and so on. Remember Me Like This is a similar beast. It has all the features of a trashy psychological thriller, but with all the resources of literary fiction brought to bear on the psychologies in question.
It’s the story of the Campbell family, a foursome living in Southport, Texas. Their lives are brutally interrupted when their eldest son, Justin, is kidnapped and then, four years later, against all hope, discovered again. The book is riveting, with the elements of suspense neatly folded into an elegant series of interlocking arcs. “Will they find the boy?” is followed by “What happened to the boy?” is followed by “Will they recover?” is followed by “What happens to the kidnapper?” The book obeys the first rule of great pulp writing: There is nowhere you want to stop.
But the plot in Remember Me Like This is interstitially tied in to the psychological details of the characters, and that’s what makes it interesting. Johnston has a gift for creating characters that are perfectly ordinary but also deeply peculiar. Griff, the younger son, who is left with his devastated parents after the disappearance of his brother, is a skater kid of the type you’ll find in any midsize city, the kind with parents whose marriage is falling apart and girlfriend problems. But in one scene, when the girlfriend in question slips out of the room, he quickly takes off his socks, spritzes them with her perfume, and tucks them away in his bag, to be smelled later.
Even moments of action are shot through with that level of psychological detail: When the disappeared boy’s father, Eric, learns from the police that his son has been abused by the kidnapper, he throws up into a wastebasket in the police station. “For the first time in decades, he recalled how nauseated his mother had been in the last year of her life,” Johnston writes. “She’d started carrying a green Tupperware bowl from room to room, in case she couldn’t make it to the toilet. His father, Eric knew, still used the bowl.” The memory within the memory is the revealing detail, the source of the sense of realism, which gives the psychological horror of the unfolding story only more heft and jeopardy. Real people’s lives are at stake in the plot’s whirlwind.
The shifting of psychological perspectives is a technique borrowed from high modernism, from James Joyce and the Faulkner of As I Lay Dying, but also from dime-store novel classics, like Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock. In the end, the high literary technique and the pulp elements of Remember Me Like This contribute so seamlessly to each other you wonder how they got separated in the first place. It doesn’t need a name. It’s just good to read.
By Stephen Marche