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On the Wide Mississippi, a Child Goes Missing

By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

THE MISSING

By Tim Gautreaux

Knopf. 375 pp. $25.95

Tim Gautreaux's new novel is set right after World War I, but so much of his peripatetic story involves the adventures of an old Mississippi riverboat that it's hard not to think of Mark Twain. Indeed, there's something 19th-century about "The Missing," this slightly improbable, morally serious but continually engaging novel about a kidnapped child. If you've been complaining that nobody writes novels as they used to, this could be your book for the spring.

Sam Simoneaux is an earnest young man from Louisiana burdened with a heavy dose of survivor's guilt. When he was 6 months old, a gang of hoodlums shot up his entire family; Sam survived only because his father tossed him in a cold furnace just in time. Twenty years later, he enlisted to fight in France, but the Armistice spared him. Back home, a fever carried off his little boy but left Sam, once again, untouched and shocked by life's random cruelty.

With that history of cursed good luck, the story begins with Sam working contentedly as a floorwalker in a New Orleans department store. One day a couple of distracted shoppers lose track of their 3-year-old daughter, Lily. Just as Sam discovers the girl, someone knocks him out. When he wakes up, the parents -- musicians from a dance boat passing through town -- blame him for losing their daughter, and the store manager says he can't come back until he finds her. Sam's culpability seems extremely slight, but so deep are the wounds from all the missing people in his life that he signs up as a bouncer on her parents' riverboat to track down the girl.

Fortunately, the implausibility of this premise is quickly superseded by Gautreaux's rip-roaring depiction of life on the old four-deck, 300-foot stern-wheeler as it glides by little towns. (When they pass Hannibal, I half-expected to see Twain waving from the shore.) This floating dance hall is a lawless zone complete with tavern and casino, just as likely to burst into flames as it is to sink "like a woodstove . . . sending everyone, sleeping or awake, into the muddy current." Held together mostly by fresh coats of paint, the boat draws upward of 2,000 raucous patrons, many of them armed, most of them drunk on moonshine. Even well-behaved dancers are a threat: If too many start in at once on the Texas Tommy, the whole deck could collapse. The most fantastic scene is a great orgy of music, alcohol, sex and violence, complete with knife fights and fistfights, patrons thrown overboard and patrons set on fire. Before the evening ends, the bathrooms break down with unspeakable results and a slot machine is thrown from the upper deck onto a smaller boat passing by, sinking it instantly.

These five-alarm episodes are interspersed with Sam's ongoing investigation into Lily's disappearance. Gautreaux, a longtime professor of creative writing at Southeastern Louisiana University, reminds us that the 1920s was a period when children were still casually victimized, orphans were given away like calendars at the drugstore, and law enforcement -- if it existed at all -- varied wildly by jurisdiction. When Sam strikes off into the dark forests of Arkansas and the fetid swamps of Louisiana, he follows trails that wind "back in time, away from civilization toward some druidlike occupancy back in the hardwood-haunted dimness." In this uncharted territory, ancient clans rule, and the most frightening creatures are human beings. Nobody knows these backwoods monsters better than Gautreaux; he luxuriated in this Gothic landscape in his previous novel, "The Clearing" (2003), a hypnotic grimfest about Louisiana lumbermen.

That earlier, less complex novel was more consistently gripping, but the story line of "The Missing" carries us along as it branches and swells, as if inspired by the great river on which so much of this book takes place. While Sam grows closer to the truth of Lily's whereabouts, he's also drawn back to the horrible violence in his childhood that redirected his life. Although he's spent years believing that no good could come from pursuing his family's murderers, pondering Lily's fate makes him wonder if he's just dressed up his passivity in the clothing of righteousness, if "maybe he should have learned along the way that something like vengeance did matter." His decision could put him back in the hands of those old killers, who might still be out there somewhere.

For Gautreaux, the journey is always a moral one, and the destination is a kind of enlightenment that seems old-fashioned next to contemporary novels that prize irony and ambiguity. He frequently tempts us to think he's falling toward melodrama, but he pulls back and does something more interesting. Indeed, the climax of "The Missing" transpires in the darkest place of all, but what Sam confronts there is somehow more harrowing and more salutary than we expect.

Ron Charles is fiction editor and can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.

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