By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 6:01 PM
This year is off to a great start for new novelists - and readers willing to sample unfamiliar names. Hannah Pittard's "The Fates Will Find Their Way" is the third impressive debut I've read in January (and I've got another for next week and the week after that). These books are a reassuring indication that new voices can still catch the attention of big publishing houses, despite what you may hear from aggrieved self-published authors.
"The Fates Will Find Their Way" ruminates over the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl and the shadow of longing she casts over the neighborhood boys. Pittard, a young short story writer who graduated from the University of Virginia, seems at first to be reworking several other authors' material. Indeed, so many kids have vanished in recent fiction they should have their own line of milk cartons. And the men who tell this tale in the plural voice must know the guys who narrated Jeffrey Eugenides's "The Virgin Suicides" almost 20 years ago.
But Pittard isn't grasping at the coattails of abduction thrillers, nor is she rewriting Eugenides's macabre book, though she graciously acknowledges its influence. Instead, she offers a story about the dark matter of adolescent desire that pulls on the heart across decades. It's a wistful novel about how little we know of one another, but how eager we are to tape together a collage of rumors, assumptions and fantasies to answer questions we're too young, too cowardly or too polite to ask.
When 16-year-old Nora Lindell disappears from her small town on Halloween night, the mothers begin working through their phone tree while the boys gather in a basement and "interrogate each other for information, eager to be the one to discover the truth." Each has a recent sighting to share: She was at the mall, the airport, the swing sets or, most ominously, at the bus station, where she may have gotten into an old car. Trey Stephens claims he had sex with Nora just last month, but he goes to public school, so who knows how reliable that is? The details constantly melt and congeal into different forms as the boys frighten and titillate each other with speculation about what must have happened.
Stewart O'Nan wrote a devastating novel about a similar disappearance a few years ago called "Songs for the Missing," which followed the cruel trajectory of one family's hopes. But Pittard doesn't intrude very far into this family's grief, nor do we hear anything about the police investigation. Instead, "The Fates Will Find Their Way" stays focused on a dozen teenage boys who continue wondering about Nora while studying her younger sister with a mixture of concern and prurience. Nora becomes an integral part of their fantasy lives, their dreams of what might have been, visions of romantic perfection they quietly return to again and again throughout their lives, early in the morning while shaving or late at night, lying next to their own pretty enough wives.
Most of the novel moves like a winding confession - not a confession of any crime, but a poignant testimony of male adolescence, steeped in nostalgia and regret. "We were boys, after all," the plural narrator admits, "which means we were creeps - our mothers' word - which means we were indiscreet and couldn't help ourselves when it came time to trading what we'd done or not done or when and with whom and how." One anecdote blends into another. The bull sessions in Trey's basement give way to sexual anecdotes of uncertain reliability, along with stories of mothers who talk too freely and fathers who drink too much. The boys polish these scenes into the domestic myths of their lives, such as the piercing anecdote about Nora's sister dressing up as Nora on the next Halloween.
It's an arresting incantation, and I couldn't believe how strongly the story drew me back to events in my own life that I hadn't thought of for decades, tragedies that smoldered in gossip without the oxygen of any real information: the boy across the street who shot himself after our neighborhood water fight; the friend whose father hanged himself; the student in the dorm who was raped by an administrator's son - all of them vanished into the mists of rumor. You have your own adolescent legends, of course, and don't be surprised by the power of this evocative novel to unearth them.
As affecting as I found this book, though, I wish its plural narrator were more consistently convincing. Every individual male character Pittard creates here is wholly believable, endowed with the peculiar desires and attributes that make people saunter off the page and prick us with the sense of their reality. By the time these guys approach 50, those original differences in class, conscience and ability have scattered them across the spectrum of happiness and success in completely plausible ways. But this stitched-together narrator pulls at its own seams; such diverse men couldn't speak in a choral voice. References to "our wives" fixing dinner and taking care of "our kids" sound as dated and stylized as a '60s sitcom.
At other times, the novel's voice seems weirdly incorporeal, lacking the visceral sense of what it's like to inhabit a breathing, sweating, working male body. These "we boys" who grow up to become "we men" are an oddly sensitive, feminine ideal of male consciousness, filled with quiet sorrow for the transgressions of men. If this is the voice of a dozen guys - jocks and geeks, executives and deadbeats, alcoholics and pedophiles - they've been boiled together for a long time to produce a very refined broth.
Still, "The Fates Will Find Their Way" is chilling and touching. Pittard can be harrowingly wise about the melancholy process of growing up, of moving from the horny days of high school to the burden of protecting our own children. We realize what's been lost, what's been done to us and what we've done to each other before we're mature enough to calculate the true cost. In Pittard's absorbing treatment, the tragedy of Nora's disappearance is eventually subsumed into the tragedies we all endure.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Post. He reviews books every Wednesday.
The Fates Will Find Their Way
By Hannah Pittard.
Ecco. 243 pp. $22.99