September 22, 2013

‘Next Time You See Me’ may not be worth a second look

“The Next Time You See Me” by Holly Goddard Jones (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 372 pages, $24.99)

“The Next Time You See Me” by Holly Goddard Jones (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 372 pages, $24.99)

A troubled teenage girl, bullied by her middle-school classmates, finds a body in the woods – and in her west-central Kentucky town, the consequences of that discovery are inevitably widespread and profound.

Holly Goddard Jones sets her dark tale in the early 1990s. This is before e-mail, before ubiquitous cell phones (much less Facebook or the 24-hour news cycle), so the ripples fan out slowly but relentlessly as Jones draws the threads into her finished weaving.

Though positive identification doesn’t come until the book’s end, there’s little doubt whose body 13-year-old Emily Houchens stumbles upon during one of her solitary after-school rambles through the hilly woods near her home. So this novel isn’t as much a mystery as it is an unraveling of the corpse’s multiple secrets.

Emily’s teacher, Susanna Mitchell, a native of Roma, the novel’s setting, who never made it out and feels herself increasingly trapped in her job and her marriage. The detective assigned to the case of her missing sister, Ronnie, turns out to be Tony Joyce, an old high school flame. As Tony begins to retrace Ronnie’s last known movements, the web begins to tighten around Wyatt Powell, a lonely 50-something in middle management at a local factory.

I grew up in the ’70s (grade three through high school) in a small eastern Kentucky town very much like Roma, and I lived there at the time in which Jones has set “The Next Time You See Me.” She has the gift for evoking a time and place. Her characterizations of the people and especially of the unwritten but unyielding class structures in a small mid-South town are right on.

This is, in many ways, a novel about the way human beings disappointed in themselves for whatever reason take it out on the nearest vulnerable target. It’s not only Emily who’s bullied – Susanna feels disrespected by her “upper-class” students and their parents and unsupported by both her band-director husband and her principal; Wyatt is tormented by his younger co-workers.

But I found myself ultimately dissatisfied with the book, particularly its ending. There was little surprise in the how or why of the body in the woods, but Jones does a good enough job of drawing her characters that it wasn’t the lack of mystery that bothered me.

Rather, it was the utter absence of redemption. I’m aware that real life seldom if ever wraps up as neatly as a conventional mystery story or cop show. Maybe, in fact, it really does more often than not end with a resolution to the conflict that leaves everyone with surface relief, but also a deeper exhaustion and hopelessness.

But that’s not what I look for in good fiction. Honesty and refusal to accept pat answers, yes – but also some evidence that people have grown and changed, learned lessons they will carry into an altered future. None of that in “The Next Time You See Me.”

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