In John Buchan's memoir, Pilgrim's Way, he wrote of his friend Raymond Asquith: "He disliked emotion, not because he felt lightly, but because he felt deeply." Though set far from Buchan's Edwardian Britain, in the dusty, down and out town of Southport, Texas, that sentiment is the same distinctive scaffolding of Bret Anthony Johnson's arresting new novel Remember Me Like This, and one that his readers won't soon be able to forget.
Like all great novels, the characters rather than the plot keep the reader riveted, although the plot alone would be gripping enough. The Campbell family is torn asunder when their eleven-year-old son Justin is abducted. After years of searching, Justin is improbably rescued and returned to his family as a teenager, which is where the story really picks up. Whole again, each member of the family is shocked to learn they remain broken, individually and as a whole. The novel chronicles their struggle to rebuild their lives in front of the public, in front of each other, and in front of themselves.
We get to know the emotion coiled up inside each of them intimately -- so intense is the interiority at times that it makes for a sort of southern Texan version of reading Virginia Woolf. The family tiptoes around each other once Justin is back, jabbing at each other's wounds and suspicions accidentally and on purpose. We are immersed in the solitude in which they attempt to fashion selves they feel comfortable confronting the world with.
Justin's father, Eric, considers it his duty to "hold the family together" and restore it to "normalcy" after Justin returns, attempting this with equally insufficient platitudinal exhortations of optimism and gratitude. Inside, he's a mess, conducting an affair with the wife of a wealthy businessman in pursuit of the feeling "erasure" she gives him, and harboring revenge fantasies against Justin's abductor, convinced that he must take action to restore his self-appointed mantle as protector of his family. Justin's mother Laura has abandoned her exterior, forsaking personal and domestic upkeep and assuming the identity of the Missing Boy's Mother. She often can't bear be to with other people, thinking when her husband enters a room, that "something inside her receded." She spends most of her time volunteering at Sea World in nearby Corpus Christi under the anonymity of her maiden name, and becomes devoted to nursing an ill dolphin named Alice back to health.
Justin's younger brother, Griff, is a 14-year-old skateboarder struggling to grow up in the shadow of his brother's sad fame and bungling a prime opportunity with beautiful 16-year-old bad girl, Fiona, so lost is he in worry and guilt. The boys' grandfather, Cecil, is a hardscrabble Texan, the owner of the (perfectly-named) Loan Star pawnshop, and the aging patriarch of the family, grappling with how he can best be useful to them with his remaining years. And there's Justin, whom we, like his family, learn the least about. He's acquired a pet snake named Sasha while in the captivity of his abductor -- the classically-creepy Dwight Buford -- but we're left to learn through a scrap of thirdhand gossip that Justin has likely been raped almost every day he spent in Dwight's home.
These divergent characters share an abiding belief that only individual redemption can morph them from the defunct link in their family. They discover that they had been wallowing in their own depreciated identities in Justin's absence, and that with him home, it seems decent and imperative to rebuild them. Their efforts to do so are varied, their solitary pursuits giving them space to try and expand into themselves again. They dive into research on Stockholm Syndrome at the library, go into debt at the mall, obsess themselves with throwing a perfect Fourth of July barbecue like a Polaroid-perfect family might.
Their darker efforts include vigilante schemes. No sooner is Justin home than his father is perusing guns at the Loan Star. "You think it'll help your cause when someone sees Justin Campbell's father considering firearms?" Cecil asks, but before long, Cecil is driving over to Buford's boarded-up apartment because "seeing firsthand the conditions in which Justin had lived seemed necessary." The Campbells propensity to push their luck will resonate with anyone who has ever felt the allure of testing their own, of seeking closure rather than deciding to stop looking for it. Each Campbell tries to bleach out their past failings rather than accept integrating them into the fabric of their future. They would rather be anything than participants in time they feel they could be making better and purer for the people they love. Or as Eric, a teacher of Texas history, puts it, in the words Texas of soldiers to their families when they left to fight at the Alamo: "It's better for a son to grow up in a country without a father than to grow up with a father and no country."
Their quests are moving examples of tragedy's many aftershocks, reminders of how difficult it is to predict or control the ripples from an original, seismic event. Beating beneath these ripples in this novel is the heart of family desperate to prove the efficacy of their love. To listen to this heartbeat inlaid with Johnston's powerful prose is to come as close to experiencing the Campbells' heightened emotional register as we can on mere ink and paper. Remember Me Like This is a novel of emotional dexterity and purity: It reminds us that lost things can be found, but that they will be so on their own terms. And it is also a novel you finish having felt, like it or not, as the characters did -- deeply.
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