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Praise for Songs for the Missing
A Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Best Book of 2008
“This is a novel about loss and healing; a novel that acknowledges the depth of loss and the limits of healing. . . . You could call this novel many things. You could call it a mystery. You could call it a thriller. You could even call it a self-help book, for reading it slowly and carefully causes one to consider love and sorrow in a much larger context than simply that of this well-paced tale. O’Nan has a remarkable ability to pinpoint the ways in which hope and suffering are intertwined. . . . This is a fine, absorbing book. It’s easy to imagine that O’Nan is on a kind of mission to restore a simple, true sense of humanity to the novel: a worthy goal, indeed.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Some books should come with warnings. That’s not a complaint, at least in the case of Stewart O’Nan’s haunting novel Songs for the Missing, which kept me up most of the night. . . . O’Nan, a former aviation engineer, describes emotional roller coasters in prose that’s remarkably taut and precise.”
—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
“Songs for the Missing has a plot that is deceptively easy to summarize, but the book has a mood so subtle that only first-rate fiction can evoke it. . . . As we read, we, too, are changed, and in ways we cannot even understand. . . . It’s the sort of experience that reveals why we read in the first place, knowing that the sadness we find inside a book mirrors the sadness always within reach.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Art, like athletics, is all about making it look easy. That’s the special magic behind the work of Stewart O’Nan, a novelist who brings his uncommon gifts to the task of rendering the common world. He writes with quiet precision about people we all know, people in regular jobs with lives we can all recognize, and the result is work that shimmers with verisimilitude. You can forget, for long stretches, that you’re reading fiction, because it feels as if you’re eavesdropping on somebody’s cell phone conversation on the bus. His writing is that true.”
—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune
“Too often the face on the milk carton becomes a dimensionless symbol, but by allowing his cast of characters to grow and change and to find their real selves, O’Nan restores humanity even among those whose fate remains in suspended animation.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Stewart O’Nan is a daredevil. . . . In scene after scene, these spare descriptions will make you catch your breath. . . . The world that O’Nan captures thwarts our expectations for cathartic tragedy or gleeful celebration, which makes the story even more devastating.”
—The Washington Post
“The book’s emotional power is undeniable, as each character grieves for Kim, wanting her disappearance to mean something beyond ‘the world’s incoherence.’ In the midst of the search, they elegiacally discover a little of what has been missing among themselves.”
—Don Lee, The Boston Globe
“O’Nan also sensitively observes the fraying and deepening of relationships during trauma and the unexpected ways it can change people.”
—The Seattle Times
“At the heart of Stewart O’Nan’s powerful fiction is his compassion for ordinary people. . . . With his characteristic spare prose style and his impressively precise use of detail, O’Nan reflects and illuminates life in Kingsville. His major achievement, however, is the intensity of the empathy he conveys to readers for all who knew Kim Larsen.”
—Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
“Songs for the Missing is anything but an easy read, but it’s a spectacular one. And, like most of O’Nan’s work, one that resolutely draws the reader in and refuses to let go.”
—The Denver Post
“Chilling and honest . . . Like all great writers, O’Nan possesses the ability to place the reader squarely inside the thoughts of his characters. In Songs for the Missing it may be an ultimately nightmarish place no parent, sibling or friend ever wants to be. But you won’t regret that O’Nan put you there.”
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“O’Nan’s novel is an elegant elegy: He has plumbed the depth of the horror no one ever wants to experience, and done it with sympathy, honesty and respect.”
—The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
“Choosing to avoid the what, who and why of Kim’s disappearance, Mr. O’Nan instead paints a nuanced portrait of how people are changed by tragic events and the far-reaching effect a person’s disappearance has on their family and community. Songs for the Missing is an elegantly crafted, memorable book that resonates with sadness.”
“O’Nan writes with great sympathy and perceptiveness, and he really captures the texture of working-class American lives.”
“Riveting . . . Songs for the Missing is an engaging and often excruciating read; it makes vivid our most dreadful thoughts, forcing us to contemplate the kind of thing we like to believe only happens elsewhere. O’Nan uses the filter of fiction along with his razor sharp, unerring eye for local detail to render our darkest and most disturbing nightmares all too real.”
—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Taut prose and matter-of-fact detail enrich this compelling portrait of teenage life in small-town Ohio. . . . Though the author sustains narrative momentum through the conventions of the police procedural, ultimately the novel is less about a possible crime than about the interconnections of small-town life. ‘The problem was that everything was connected,’ thinks one of Kim’s friends. ‘One lie covered another, which covered a third, which rested against a fourth. It all went back to Kingsville being so goddamn small.’ a novel in which every word rings true.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“O’Nan proves that uncertainty can be the worst punishment of all in this unflinching look at an unraveling family. Through shifting points of view . . . O’Nan raises the suspense while conveying the sheer torture of what it’s like not to know what has happened to a loved one. When—if ever—do you stop looking?”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“O’Nan’s writing is undeniably skillful. . . . The pacing is spotless.”
—The Miami Herald
“What begins as a procedural turns into something more interesting: a mosaic-mirror reflection of the small town that mourns her loss.”
“A page-turner that illustrates the unsettling idea that sometimes answers only raise more questions.”
“Songs for the Missing is the kind of book that makes you wish your flight were longer. . . . After hooking readers with the fact-paced opening, Mr. O’Nan edges away from the easy payoffs of the thriller genre. He resists the clichés of closure and triumph over adversity. Instead, he gives the reader more ordinary satisfaction of characters who confront tragedy and doggedly endure.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“It’s a story as familiar as a photo on a milk carton, as unimaginable as death. It’s also a situation that has been the basis for countless tear-jerking and predictable movies and TV episodes. Not in this novel; Songs for the Missing has an emotional austerity and courage that make it far more moving. . . . One of the great strengths is that very little of what happens then is what you might expect—and yet it rings entirely, heartbreakingly true.”
—St. Petersburg Times
“O’Nan’s use of details . . . give a believable, behind-the-scenes glimpse of what a grieving family must endure. . . . A nuanced portrait.”
“The characters he creates are so lifelike that one tends to forget they are fictional. . . . Many of O’Nan’s books contain a dark element, and Songs for the Missing is one of the most haunting. The writing, as always, is consistently beautiful.”
—The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg)
“O’Nan shifts his point of view . . . and hits each with pointillist accuracy, creating complex portraits of each individual as well as the shifting mood of the town itself. Most impressive, however, is the precision with which O’Nan conveys the transformation of a family’s fresh terror into a kind of quotidian torture. . . . O’Nan creates his narrative tension out of the relationships between his multilayered characters. There is none of the easy sensationalism here that his subject might suggest and not a single wasted sentence. Powerful, honest and at times elegiac, this absorbing and masterfully written novel is not to be missed.”
“Both profound and profoundly beautiful. A haunting meditation on the power of those we lose, its emotional resonance defies description. Like most of Stewart O’Nan’s work, my ultimate response was the highest praise one writer can pay another: envy. I so dearly wish I’d written it.”
“Stewart O’Nan has done the seemingly impossible—taken a story with tabloid potential and not just avoided the pitfalls of melodrama and unearned grace but written a novel that is singularly insightful, beautifully modulated, and genuinely moving. It’s also very suspenseful. I read it quickly but will remember it for a very long time.”
SONGS FOR THE MISSING
Stewart O’Nan is the author of fourteen novels, including The Odds; Emily, Alone; and Last Night at the Lobster, as well as several works of nonfiction, including, with Stephen King, the bestselling Faithful. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, where he lives with his family.
ALSO BY STEWART O’NAN
Last Night at the Lobster
The Good Wife
The Night Country
Wish You Were Here
A Prayer for the Dying
A World Away
The Speed Queen
The Names of the Dead
In the Walled City
Faithful (with Stephen King)
The Circus Fire
The Vietnam Reader (editor)
On Writers and Writing, by John Gardner (editor)
Table of Contents
Praise for Songs for the Missing
About the Author
Description of the Person, When Last Seen
Another Kind of Lie
Nonfamily Abduction Sample
The Right to Disappear
Answers to Name
Hello, My Name Is
Stop, Look & Listen
The Motorist’s Prayer
The Loser’s Bracket
The Last Time
The Long Weekend
Where She Was
The Advanced Stages
America’s Most Wanted
Being the Cup
Catch and Release
The Killer Next Door
The Grateful Parents
There’s No Place Like Home
For Trudy and Caitlin and Stephen
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
and wake up where the clouds are far
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
away above the chimney tops
that’s where you’ll find me
Description of the Person, When Last Seen
July, 2005. It was the summer of her Chevette, of J.P. and letting her hair grow. The last summer, the best summer, the summer they’d dreamed of since eighth grade, the high and pride of being seniors lingering, an extension of their best year. She and Nina and Elise, the Three Amigos. In the fall they were gone, off to college, where she hoped, by a long and steady effort, she might become someone else, a private, independent person, someone not from Kingsville at all.
The sins of the Midwest: flatness, emptiness, a necessary acceptance of the familiar. Where is the romance in being buried alive? In growing old?
She did not hate the town, as, years later, her sister would tell one lover. Not Kim, not the good daughter. She loved the lake, how on a clear day you could see all the way to Canada from the bluffs. She loved the river, winding hidden in its mossy gorge of shale down to the harbor. She even loved the slumping Victorian mansions along Grandview her father was always trying to sell, and the sandstone churches downtown, and the stainless steel diner across from the post office. She was just eighteen.
At the Conoco, on break, she liked to cross the lot and then the on-ramp and stand at the low rail of the overpass, French-inhaling menthols in the dark as traffic whipped past below, taillights shooting west into the future. Toledo was three hours away, on the far side of Cleveland, far enough to be another country. Trucks lit like spaceships shuddered under her feet, dragging their own hot wind, their trailers full of unknown cargo. Slowly, night by night, the dream of leaving was coming true—with her family’s blessing, their very highest hopes. She could not regret it. She could only be grateful.
Inside, the a/c was cranked so high she wore a T-shirt under her uniform. They poached old nametags they found in the junk drawer under the register. She was Angie, Nina was Sam. They spun on their stools and watched the monitors, punching in the pump numbers and making change. They read heavy, insane fashion magazines and called around to see what was going on later—even though they were on camera too—and fought over whose turn it was to refill the nacho pot. Her timecard was in its slot, the clock beside it chunking with every minute, a record of her steadiness. She’d worked seven days a week since graduation and hadn’t missed a shift. Later the police would call this strict pattern a contributing factor. Secretly she was proud of it. She’d never been so determined. She’d never had a reason before.
The Conoco was an oasis of light, drawing cars off the highway like the muffleheads that fluttered against the windows. Drivers came in squinting and rubbing their necks, stopping on the mat inside the door as if this was all new to them, and too much, the bright aisles of candies and chips overloading their brains so they couldn’t read the sign directly in front of them.
They blinked at her, apologetic. “Where are the—?”
Fifty, a hundred times a night. She pointed her whole arm like a ghost.
“It’s true,” Nina said. “The more you drive, the dumber you get.”
“Thank you, thank you, Sam I Am.”
The living dead had bad breath. They bought coffee and soda and water, cigarettes and gum, Tootsie Pops and jerky, anything to get them to the next stop. In line they nodded their heads and mouthed the lyrics to the dinosaur pop that played endlessly inside and out, a fiendish commercial-free satellite feed pieced together, it seemed, by U2 and the Doobie Brothers. They paid double what they would at the Giant Eagle and were grateful when she took a penny from the little dish to cover them.
“Thanks a lot, Angie.”
“Thanks a lot, Angie,” Nina mocked, acting retarded, nuzzling her and flicking her tongue near her ear.
“Eww. Did you smell him?”
“He wanted to pet you and hug you and love you.”
“No, that’s you.”
“Don’t tell Hinch.”
The creepiest were the old guys who bought condoms and wanted to joke about it like they were on the same team. There was a regular from down the county Nina christened Fat Joe-Bob who must have weighed three hundred pounds and wore a chunky gold chain and the same black Steeler sweatpants year-round.
“I don’t think he actually uses them,” Nina said. “You know, the normal way?”
“Maybe he’s married.”
“Ow, my eyes!” Nina said, covering them. “I’m not supposed to get fatfuck in them.”
Eight hours in a freezing glass box. Even Nina couldn’t make it go fast enough.
Their customers weren’t all strangers. Friends and classmates visited, sliding their fake IDs across the counter for them to inspect. Nina thought it was funny that Kim felt guilty, since they both had their own. For Kim it wasn’t the fear of getting busted so much as the feeling she was being taken advantage of, but hours later, when they caught up with their friends again, she drank her fair share of beers and was thankful she didn’t have to pay for them.
Every night they fought a war against boredom and lost. She thought their bodies should have adapted to swing shift after a whole month. Nina thought it had something to do with the fluorescents, the flat, shadowless wash of light that brought out the veins in their hands, their palms splotchy as raw hamburger. It was like living under water, two captured mermaids displayed in a tank.
And then, with half an hour left, they rallied, as if, the day nearly done, they were just now waking up. They wiped down the counters by the Icee machine and the microwave and restocked the coffee station, getting the place ready to hand over to Doug-o and Kevin. Whose turn was it to do the men’s room?
From there it was like a countdown. They took turns fixing their makeup and brushing their hair in the dinged steel mirror of the women’s room while the other manned the front. When graveyard punched in they hung up their tops—“’night, Angie” “’night, Sam”—then headed for their getaway cars, parked side by side.
Everyone’s schedule was different. In town Elise had already tipped out at Pape’s while J.P. was helping close the Giant Eagle. Hinch and Marnie still had another hour to go at the DQ, so they met there. It was convenient. They could leave their cars in the lot, backed up against the cemetery. The sheriff lived right across the road; no one would bother them.
Her new curfew was two o’clock, a compromise neither side liked. Her mother worked in the emergency room and thought everyone was going to die in a car crash. Her father was calmer, framing his argument in terms of insurance premiums. She needed to remember (as if she could forget), she was still living under their roof.
Part of it was J.P., who was new, and laid-back, into frisbee and hanging out, not her usual confident jock. His mother had raised him by herself, another mark against him. It didn’t help that they lived back behind the harbor in the same neighborhood her parents had fled a dozen years ago, and that he drove a crappy Cavalier and had hair down to his shoulders. Her mother blamed J.P. for Kim’s tattoo, even though he was the one squeamish about needles. Her parents didn’t believe her when she said he was harmless, and actually very sweet. If anything, she was a bad influence on him, but all they saw was the loser who might ruin her future.
“Just let us know where you’re going to be,” her mother said, as if that was the least she could do. What she meant was, stay out of the police log in the Star-Beacon so you don’t hurt your father’s business. It could have been the family motto: All a realtor has is his good name.
“We’ll probably go to the beach if it’s nice,” Kim said, and it wasn’t a lie. They might hit a couple of dives on the way, but by the end of the night they would be sitting in the cold sand around a driftwood fire, listening to the soft wash of the waves. If it rained they’d probably go to Elise’s and play pool in her basement.
“Let us know if you go anywhere else. You’ve got your phone.”
Her mother didn’t really mean this. She needed to be in bed by ten at the latest to get up for work. Her father was the one who waited up for Kim, though that had changed since graduation. Weekends she used to find him asleep on the couch with the TV on mute and the clicker in his lap; now that she was out every night he turned off all the lights but the ones in the back hall and the stairwell, making a path to her room.
Her parents’ door was closed. So was Lindsay’s. Closing hers just completed the set.
Alone in bed she read Madeleine L’Engle and Lloyd Alexander—otherworldly fantasies she’d loved as a girl, as if trying to call back that lost time. Even if J.P. and Nina had had to drive her home, she could convince herself she wasn’t tired. There was nothing to get up for, and in the quiet warmth of the covers she fought the spins by concentrating on the sentences snaking down the page and in the morning woke up with a killer headache, the room too bright. She pulled her pillow over her head and made it all go away.
That day she got up around eleven, to Cooper licking. He’d butted the door open and was beached with his head under her dresser. “Stop,” she said, “Cooper, stop,” and then couldn’t get back to sleep. To make up for it she took a leisurely shower, closing her eyes beneath the spray.
On her dry-erase board her mother had left a message to please take Lindsay out driving, and a little cartoon car with two heads in it. Lindsay had her permit but needed someone with a license to go with her, and her mother conveniently didn’t have time.
“Fuck me,” Kim said, because everyone was going swimming at the river. If she’d known she would have gotten up earlier.
Lindsay was downstairs, lying on the couch, watching Bubble Boy for the millionth time, laughing before the actors could deliver their lines. They were three years apart, just close enough so they overlapped her last year at the high school. Lindsay was the baby, and the brain. She still had braces, and painful-looking zits she tried to cover with foundation. She hung around with the other nerdy girls in the wind ensemble and the robotics club. Last spring she and her friends had camped out overnight to be first in line for the new Star Wars. Since then Nina called her Obi Wan Ke-No-Boobs. Kim didn’t like to think of her alone here with their parents, as if she was abandoning her to an infinite limbo.
Today, though, she was a pain. Kim knew she was being selfish—exactly what her mother had trumped her with in their most recent battle—but that only made it worse.
“Let’s go,” she told her. “Put your shoes on.”
“It’s almost over.”
“Just pause it. I’ve got shit to do.”
“Okay, you don’t have to be a jerk about it.”
“I’m not the one crying to Mom every five seconds.”
“I didn’t!” Lindsay said. “It was Dad who said—”
“Whatever, just come on. I need to be back by one.”
Lindsay brushed past her and ran upstairs.
“Where are you going?”
“I need my glasses.”
Her answer made Kim shake her head. Who wore glasses anymore?
In the driveway she watched Lindsay squinting at the idiot lights of the dash, trying to remember the steps in the right order. Her hand paused over the shifter like a novice trying to defuse a bomb. She’d brought her manual, like that might help.
“Emergency brake,” Kim said.
“Then do it.”
She was tentative backing up, leaning to peer in her side mirror, drifting toward the mailbox. Kim turned off the radio so she could concentrate.
“Straighten it out. Good. Now give it some gas.”
They shadowed the railroad tracks, practicing right-hand turns in the rundown blocks off Buffalo. The streets back here were still the original red brick, frost-heaved and dotted with ugly patches of asphalt. The houses were rentals, sagging Italianates and vinyl-sided duplexes with rusty wire fences threatening tetanus. Her father saw them as the enemy in the endless struggle to keep up Kingsville’s property values, blaming the landlords more than the tenants, as if ownership somehow made them more responsible. She and Nina had waited outside late one night before graduation while J.P. and Hinch went in. Everybody knew where to go.
Now, in the middle of the day, husky mothers in shorts sat smoking and drinking sodas on their stoops while their kids chased one another around the sun-browned yards. They marked the Chevette each time it swung wide and then corrected, followed it like cops, and Kim told Lindsay to take the underpass to the high school.
She was surprised to find so many cars in the lot. Like idiots, the football team was out practicing in the heat. One mother had brought a lawn chair to watch them, an umbrella attached to make her own personal shade. Down at the empty end, Lindsay parked and parked. Kim had done the same drills with her father, and imitated his patience, praising her when she fitted the car between the lines (though she’d done it in the company wagon, nearly twice the size of the Chevette), calmly calling for the brake when she seemed headed for the curb.
“You been going out with Dad a lot?”
“Not a lot. Why?”
“You’re doing really good.”
“Thanks.” Lindsay was puzzled, as if this might be a set-up. Kim hadn’t been very nice to her lately. She’d complained about it to her mother, who as usual did nothing.
“Let’s go do the drive-thru at the DQ.” Only after the offer was out did Kim realize what she was saying. The lane that wrapped around the Dairy Queen was narrow, and two cement-filled steel posts guarded the window.
“I thought you had ‘shit’ to do.”
“I do, but it’s lunchtime. My treat.”
It took forever to get there, and then there was a line.
“I can’t do this,” Lindsay said.
“Let the brake off and inch up behind this guy. You’ve got room on my side if you need it.”
Once, when Kim was just beginning, she veered too close to some parked cars and without a word her father grabbed the wheel with one hand and tugged it till they were going straight. She resisted the urge now. Lindsay craned her chin toward the windshield, trying to see over the hood.
“Just follow him,” Kim said. “He’s bigger than you are.”
At the order board she braked too hard, jerking them forward.
“You have to roll your window down.”
“What the hell do you want?” the speaker blurted—Marnie, pointing at them from the cockpit of the pick-up window. She didn’t see it was Lindsay driving till they pulled up. They were so far away that Lindsay had to open her door to grab the bag.
“Nice job there,” Marnie said.
“Don’t take that shit from her,” Kim said, and stuck out her tongue.
“Don’t die in a terrible fiery accident,” Marnie said.
Eating fries while driving was too advanced, so they found a shady spot at the back of the lot and turned on the radio. The trees inside the spiked iron fence were old, their roots poking through the dry grass like knucklebones. Sparrows hopped among the faded decorations, wreaths on green wire stands and flags left over from Memorial Day. Lindsay squeezed ketchup into the top of her clamshell so they could share. They sat side-by-side, dipping and chewing. They didn’t spend time together like this, and she was self-conscious, not wanting to ruin it.
“Got a game tonight?”
“Yeah,” Lindsay said, downcast, as if she didn’t want to be reminded.
“Who you playing?”
“D’know. We suck anyway.”
“That’s not what Dad says.”
“You’ve never seen us.” Kim had played for him too, enduring his relentless overcoaching as Edgewater Properties sank to its proper spot at the bottom of the league. But Kim could actually play. Lindsay had inherited her cleats but that was it. With her knobby knees and braces she was terrified of the ball, and dreaded every game.
“I thought you were supposed to be going to the playoffs.”
“Everybody goes to the playoffs now. It’s like the Special Olympics.”
“How many more games you got?”
“Five and then the playoffs. So six.”
They ate to Weezer and Franz Ferdinand, pinching the soggy ends of their burgers, trying not to drip on anything. Kim finished first, and though she was afraid it would sound lame and melodramatic, she also knew this might be the perfect opportunity, while Lindsay’s mouth was full.
“You know, dude,” she said, “I’m really going to miss you.”
“No you won’t,” Lindsay said, tipping her chin up so she didn’t spew lettuce everywhere.
“You don’t think so.”
“You’ll be too busy with your new friends and everything.”
She didn’t have to say “Just like now.” Okay, that was fair, but she would miss Linds too. Couldn’t both things be true?
“You can come visit me.”
“I don’t think Mom’ll let me.”
“Maybe not this year but next year. You’re going to have to start looking at schools then anyway. Not that you’ll be looking at Bowling Green.”
“God, I hope not,” Lindsay said—a joke, or it was supposed to be, so she was relieved when Kim laughed. Deep down Lindsay knew Kim was disappointed with Bowling Green—as were her parents, though they never said anything. Case Western had been her first choice, but she didn’t even make the waiting list. Nina was going to Denison, Elise had been early decision at Kenyon. While Lindsay felt bad for Kim, she vowed to herself she would do better than any of them.
They were both finished and it was nearly one. Kim turned off the radio. “Ready?”
Lindsay nodded, serious, sitting upright like a test pilot. She had to use both hands to depress the button of the emergency brake.
“Come on, Muscles,” Kim said.
They drove back past the hospital with its helipad off in the corner of the lot. Her mother’s Subaru was in its usual spot, a fold-out silver reflector protecting the dash from the sun. In the ER, she would be sitting at her window, patiently taking down someone’s information, checking off boxes, the queen of clipboards. By the time she got home Kim would be at work. The only time they saw each other now was on weekends. Lindsay thought it was easier. Since the end of school they’d been fighting over J.P. and her drinking and breaking curfew. Her mother was just freaked out about her leaving.--This text refers to the Paperback edition.