The Young Lady Vanishes

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

DEPARTURE LOUNGE

By Chad Taylor

Europa. 173 pp. Paperback, $14.95

Still in his thirties, Chad Taylor already has gotten a lot of attention in his native New Zealand, including many enthusiastic reviews and a couple of prestigious literary fellowships, but he hasn't made much of a dent in the United States. Only one of his four previous novels, "Shirker" (2001), has been published here, and though a film adaptation of his novel "Heaven" was released by Miramax in 1998, it doesn't seem to have found much of an audience. "Departure Lounge" may not change any of that but it certainly ought to, because it is smart, original, surprising and just about as cool as a novel can get.

Taylor has a Web site, but it doesn't tell a whole lot about him beyond promoting his novels and his collection of short stories, "The Man Who Wasn't Feeling Himself" (1995). He was born in Auckland, where much of his fiction is set, and he has a strong interest in films, television and photography (the influence of all of which can be seen in "Departure Lounge"). He appears to have no patience with anything excessively "sensitive, politically correct" (his own words), and he seems to enjoy rebelling against that particular orthodoxy by exploring "offensive ideas," whatever that means.

What matters, though, is that Taylor can flat-out write. His style owes a lot to Raymond Chandler and lesser apostles of noir, but at the same time it's very much his own. His prose is spare but with a strong undercurrent of emotion; "cool" certainly is the word for him, but there's a good deal of heat beneath. Thus for much of its course "Departure Lounge" appears to be the story of a hip, nonchalant, resourceful criminal named Mark William Chamberlain who deftly breaks into houses and apartments, but gradually a deeper and darker story emerges: that of a girl, Caroline May, who disappeared more than 20 years ago, when she was in high school.

The novel opens on a deliciously cynical note. Mark (it takes quite awhile before we know his name) is in a billiards parlor with Rory Jones, a crooked developer who builds properties that start to fall apart as soon as his legal obligation to them has ceased. He's slick and arrogant and full of self-serving hot air:

"Property is emotion. It's who we are. It's how we feel. It's our identity. Not just the land and the people: the very house. You move into a big house, you become a louder person. Maybe you move into a new place, you attract new people and gradually, over time, you change: you become new. So what are we saying is effecting this change: the person, or the space around them? It's not a lounge: it's us. That's why I got into this line of work, Mark. Property is our modern religion."

Mark lets Rory win the next game, then says goodbye, and "the following night I broke into his apartment and stole everything that wasn't nailed down." While he's at it he hits two more apartments in the same complex: "My hands were hot but everything else felt cool. I was on a roll, now. This was Sunday shopping. I was hitting my stride." Then he hits a fourth apartment and is stopped cold by a photograph: a 1979 class picture that shows the vanished Caroline May "in the back row, right next to me. I was smiling too. I dusted both our faces clear. There was a lot of dust. It was a long time ago."

It is also a long time before the reader begins to understand the importance of Caroline May, to the story and to Mark. Meantime, we are treated to a wry, detailed account of the fine art of the break-in -- Taylor knows a lot, or gives the impression of knowing a lot, about sliding open locks, driving away in other people's cars, "smash and grab" store break-ins -- and the effects on the people whose residences and vehicles are burglarized:

"Their owners would recall that moment of sensation for years afterward: the dislocation, the disbelief, the realization that they had been burgled. They would remember the words as they broke the news to friends or their families, their voices trembling. But beyond the moment of discovery, the fear doesn't last. People rationalise what has gone missing: after time they become almost grateful. In your imagination, there's always something worse to lose."

While Mark goes about his business, other characters enter and assume increasing importance. Lennox, whom Mark knew when both were in prison, fences the stuff he steals (including passports, Asian ones being especially lucrative), sets up a smash-and-grab at a local jewelry store and instructs him in the craft of safecracking. Josie, Mark's occasional girlfriend, is a clerk at a law firm, "letting me know how sharp she was: the young girl, the rich girl burning a little brighter than everyone else." Mark's neighbor, Mrs. Callaghan, creaks around with her old dog, both seemingly on their last legs yet still standing, still watching. Varina Sumich, a schoolmate of Mark's, is a champion swimmer, with whom Mark shares a complicated treasure of memories. Harry Bishop, the alcoholic cop who'd been on the Caroline May story from the start, now reveals that he knows everything, absolutely everything, about Mark.

They're interesting people, Mark in particular, but gradually it becomes clear that the most interesting of all, the central character in the novel, is Caroline May. More than two decades ago she left her parents' house in the town of North Head, on the sea outside Auckland, and vanished, leaving not a single sign or clue. Pictures went out on television and newspapers, and "by the next night everyone in the country knew what she looked like but nobody could say where she was." Posters were pasted all over the place but brought forth no answers: "A girl had disappeared without trace. She had walked out one night and never come back, and that was it."

For Mark, the key is a confrontation with Harry Bishop. The old detective sits down with him and recites chapter and verse about his long, if relatively minor, criminal record. Mark realizes that Bishop "could wrap me up for good," but instead of fear he feels relief:

"Listening to Harry made me realise what had been really going on. It wasn't about me and it wasn't even about him. All this time I thought I'd been breaking into places and stealing stuff, in fact I'd been doing the opposite. I had stepped into other people's lives and walked through their homes, but I hadn't been looking for their secrets: I had been checking on mine. I had been looking for Caroline since she left us all."

The moment Caroline left, time froze for those who knew her and cared about her. They grew into adults, but the great loss of their adolescent years left them wounded and incomplete. Now they invent theories about where she went and what happened to her, but until they can come to terms with her loss, and theirs, their lives will be in limbo.

In the end, then, "Departure Lounge" is about the transition from adolescence to adulthood and the many losses that are incurred en route. Beneath the crackle of Taylor's prose and the quick jabs of his wit, there is a sympathetic heart that knows how difficult this passage can be. "Departure Lounge" is a lovely piece of work that leaves one hoping more of Taylor's writing finds its way to this side of the Pacific.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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