Remember Me Like This
(Random House, 2014)
To say that Bret Anthony Johnston understands the craft of writing is to risk understatement. The director of creative writing at Harvard University, he is the author of the short story collection Corpus Christi: Stories, named a best book of the year by The Independent and The Irish Times. According to The Texas Observer, “Johnston’s depiction of Corpus Christi, half-there, gray and disheveled, is a brilliant background choice for the collection of stories whose characters are also neither here nor there.” Johnston is also the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, a primer thoughtfully arranged by literary craft technique (character, point of view, plot, etc.)—its bright red cover has become a fixture on many a writing professor’s bookshelf. Johnston has been heralded as a fresh new voice in the landscape of contemporary literary fiction (Texan or otherwise), and occasionally speaks on panels on Southern literature. And now he emerges with the debut novel Remember Me Like This, set just a few miles from his familiar Corpus Christi.
Remember Me opens with a double-portrait: first of the fictional coastal town of Southport, Texas. The reader enters the world of H-E-B grocery stores and Whataburgers, rusty pickup trucks and pawnshops. Locals gather for their morning cuppa at the Castaway Cafe, skateboarding teens practice tricks at the drained local pool turned half-pipe, and window-peeping old ladies nibble on Lorna Doones, watching life go by. Southport is, in so many ways, the scene of quiet, small town Texas.
But Southport is also home to a grieving family, whose eldest son Justin has mysteriously disappeared four years prior. When we meet the Campbells, each member has devolved into varying states of inertia: Laura, the boy’s mother, takes on volunteer shifts at the Marine Lab, keeping a vigilant—if obsessive—eye on an ailing bottlenose dolphin but otherwise walking through life in a frozen herring and chlorine-riddled haze. Eric, Justin’s father, anesthetizes his pain by having an affair with a married woman. Eric and Laura’s younger son Griff whiles away his afternoons perfecting his ollie while grappling with a secret—that he was the last person to see his older brother alive. And Cecil, Justin’s grandfather, subsumes his anger by polishing his gun in the early parts of the novel (perhaps in a nod—or middle finger—to Chekhovian conventions of loaded guns). Shards of happier, earlier times are few and far between; what we see is a portrait of a fractured family, a marriage on the brink. The novel, which takes place over the course of one summer, is told from the third person limited perspective of each of these characters, in alternating chapters. (At times Johnston pulls a Virginia Woolf and briefly jumps into the head of a Marine Lab volunteer coordinator, a spying neighbor.)
It is a risky strategy to start a novel with characters in such a pathetic (in the truest sense of the word) state; which is why when Eric receives the phone call that Justin has been found after all these years, Remember Me is infused with new life, as reviving as the breeze from the Gulf that cuts through the stifling summer heat.
What happened to Justin is the manifestation of every parent’s worst nightmare: he was kidnapped by a child molester and held captive, to add insult to injury, a few miles down the road in Corpus. Justin—matured, mostly laconic, with the occasional dry quip—“carr[ies] himself like a grateful guest, someone hoping to make a good impression and be invited back.” Yet the reunion is an ambivalent one for the family: things aren’t as hunky-dory as the TV crews and residents of Southport expect them to be. Readjustment for the Campbells proves difficult, and tensions escalate when Buford, the child molester, is set free on bail and pleads not guilty to all charges.
Remember Me succeeds in taking sensational subject matter—child molestation—and treating it with a subdued dignity. Johnston avoids the temptation of offering up details on what exactly transpired in the four years Justin has gone missing—a move that might alienate readers looking for a more salacious, graphic read. Instead he chooses to focus on the aftermath: the attempts to cope and heal. What is particularly moving is Johnston’s very realistic depictions of what could easily veer into clichéd territory by a less steady hand: a mother’s pain. “Times had come when a nauseating wave of gratitude had surged through her, as if Buford had intentionally—graciously, apologetically—returned her son.” It’s a sentiment that feels authentic; the author comfortably occupies Laura’s headspace.
The novel, too, is filled with rich descriptions of place, ones so transporting it took this Northern-bred reader right down to Southport. “Cars with sun-blistered paint” have bumper sticks that read “1 CROSS + 3 NAILS = 4 GIVEN.” Men sell “watermelons and pecans and nets of oranges at the stoplight.” The locals use “old coffee cans full of sand for ashtrays.” Water imagery and metaphors suffuse the novel; painful memories are “bleached clean”; jokes are composed to “buoy [the family’s] spirits.” The thoughts of the characters, too, are composed with a fresh and economical hand. Some gems: Eric “hadn’t yet cottoned to the idea of fatherhood.” “The pain Justin had endured ... was a kind of quicksand, a constant threat that emptied every promise from the bottom up.”
But what is gained in exploring the rich inner life of the characters is sometimes at the sacrifice of having them interact with each other in the external world. Too much of the novel’s real estate is spent literally driving around with the Campbells (or, in the case of the underaged Griff, of wandering on foot with), as they think about but never actually engage with each other. When Johnston does give us dramatized scenes, the text—as well as the characters themselves—feel alive and wholly realized; we crave more, yearn for more of these all too rare moments.
Johnston seems to be treading once more on familiar territory in Remember Me, where characters are “neither here nor there.” Perhaps this is his intention—unmoored characters drifting towards and away from each other, not unlike the image of the “broken-up body” floating in the bay that kicks off the novel. If this is the case, then Johnston achieves it; but the risk is, the more disembodied the characters feel, the more the reader has to work to stay engaged with, and find a connection to, their emotional numbness. For example, 10 short lines of dialogue, exchanged between Eric and Laura as he traces words on her back in bed, tell us more about their strained relationship than the pages—chapters—spent rattling down dirt roads with them, as they each think about their respective unhappiness. Ditto a short scene where Justin divulges to Griff what happened with Buford, versus all that time spent in Griff's head as he skates through the streets.
Johnston doesn’t necessarily tie ends up nicely for us. While one looming threat pervading the story has been diffused by the novel’s conclusion, other, larger questions linger. For readers looking for a more sensationalized, or at least overt treatment of a sensational topic, Remember Me is not the book for you; but those wishing to experience the inner lives of characters dealing with its horrible aftermath will find a quiet comfort in its pages.