Seedy charm will only get you so far
Miss Me When I'm GonePhilip Stephens
(Plume · paperback · $15)
Miss Me When I'm Gone is like a friend from another state who won't shut up about his old buddies. He's a nice guy, but damn, you don't know those people and you'll probably never meet them.
The debut novel from Philip Stephens concerns Cyrus Harper, an alcoholic folk singer coming home to Missouri (it's pronounced “Mi-zer-uh”) to tend to his ailing mother. That right there is enough to pitch a prequel to Crazy Heart, the vapid but much-celebrated country music movie from 2009. Change the names. Cyrus becomes Bad Blake. Watch him get into bar fights with anyone who dares diss on Woody Guthrie and then walk on down that lonesome road, slinging his long-lost sister's guitar. One line of dialogue could explain why Blake used to play folk music instead of country.
But I digress. Two characters find themselves in a rural county, their lives and actions seemingly unrelated. Cyrus is going to see his mama. Meanwhile, Margaret Bowman is traveling to Independence to take custody of her daughter after her husband “OD’d in a truck stop shooting gallery.” For some reason, she’s hitchhiking instead of taking the bus. A large scar runs from her ear to her nostril, the result of an abortive throat-slashing attempt. Mysterious. She wears a begonia-print dress and packs a .38.
A large scar runs from her ear to her nostril, the result of an abortive throat-slashing attempt. She wears a begonia-print dress and packs a .38.
Margaret and Cyrus are hard livin', hard drinkin' ... and reek of the familiar.
But that doesn't mean they’re not entertaining. Margaret poses as a prostitute to rob a horny gas station attendant. That hustle wouldn't be out of place in a Jim Thompson novel. Cyrus begins hanging out with his old-buddy-turned-crooked-sheriff (to be fair, he uses the money he shakes down a club owner for to buy new toilets at the jail). As Cyrus and Margaret don’t know each other, their story arcs seem destined to meet, probably in tragedy. Or the writer will defy expectations and make them spiral away from one another. Loose ends. Who knows?
If only we could get to where the random nature of the universe causes the stories to slam together or drift away with no real conclusion, no synthesis. Either way. What seems to be the beginning of a good story is soon mired, wheels spinning.
Cyrus spent years in California working as an itinerant folk singer, and things have changed in his home town. His brother is now a ruthless real estate developer. Shady hill people knock atoms around in makeshift meth labs, cooking the devil’s candy. All-nude strip clubs serve only fruit juice. It's not the picking-and-grinning countryside it used to be.
All the elements are there for some good, seedy melodrama: Margaret, the mysterious and perhaps dangerous woman; the sinister folks; the evil woods. But the narrative—particularly Cyrus’ pining for a bygone era—kills the fun. The good old days are illusory, and dedicating too much time to them is like that out-of-state friend. It becomes dull.
The novel veers wildly and without warning into extended flashbacks. Cyrus’ mother hallucinates that folk song characters are coming to make a pass at her. His philandering preacher of a father grows his own grapes for nonalcoholic communion wine. His sister disappears, swallowed by the woods. This is juicy stuff, but presenting them as flashbacks sucks the wind out of the action, past and present.
In the midst of this is incessant folk-song-title referencing. If you don't have a working knowledge of the genre, it gets a lot like an advanced linguistics class. Sure, you learn the internal mechanics of Arabic, but good luck asking where the bathroom is while visiting Riyadh.
With all these degenerates milling about, Miss Me When I'm Gone has moments of Ozark noir. But nostalgia blunts the sense of urgency required for crime fiction. To borrow the movie parlance, it needs an inciting incident. Say, a murder in the first few pages. Something to pique the interest and keep the pages turning. By the time Margaret begins killing people, I'm praying for death.