The premise of "Still Missing" by Beth Gutcheon is simple, direct and exploitative.
Alex Selky, age 6 3/4, "a small, sturdy child with a two-hundred-watt smile and a giggle like falling water," vanishes without a trace as he walks the two blocks to the New Boston School of Back Bay on a May morning in 1980. The disappearance occurs just seven paragraphs into a novel that, according to the jacket copy, is already slated to become "a major motion picture from the producer of 'Kramer vs. Kramer.'"
Watch the camera pan in on the anguish of the grieving mother, Susan Selky, age 34, professor of American literature at Harvard, the estranged wife of Graham Selky, a woman described as "bright, loyal, stubborn, shy." Watch Susan Selky's face form an impassive mask as the police remain baffled by the case and the media become bored by her plight. As Gutcheon writes, "Here is pain beyond sense, the inchoate anguish of an animal . . ."
It is a perfect novel to spark discussion on the "Phil Donahue Show." You can just hear the dialogue: "Susan Selky is fictional, but her plight is all too real. Every year, thousands of children just disappear. There was that case in Soho in New York. If a missing child is over 7, the police class it as a runaway. Phil, I don't have to tell you how terrible the sexual abuse of children is. In many ways, Susan Selky is a composite of all the mothers in America who try to keep the flame of hope burning as they wait for word of a missing child."
This is not a diatribe against publishers for ballyhooing tear-jerker novels about missing children while paying scant attention to sensitive, carefully wrought, symbol-laden accounts of coming of age in Topeka, Kan. I will leave that job to embittered failed novelists and self-appointed guardians of literary standards.
My problems with "Still Missing" are simpler ones involving plot and characters.
Given the initial premise, the book cannot end with Alex Selky still missing. As the author herself writes, "A decade or two of television does not prepare the audience for plots without resolution." Do we get the upbeat climax of a tearful reunion between mother and child? Or does grimy realism prevail and Susan Selky learn to deal with the brutal murder of her son?
Either way, Gutcheon is stuck with a linear plot, and her efforts to embellish it are an annoyance. The reader instinctively knows that the Boston police will not stumble onto a real lead until late in the novel and that the man initially indicted for Alex's murder is innocent. Shared grief momentarily reunites Susan with her philandering college professor husband, but neither the couple nor the author devotes much energy to plumbing the debths of this relationship.
It is not so much suspense that carries you through "Still Missing" as impatience. Get on with it. Which will it be: the lady or the tiger?
Through it all, the character of Susan Selky dominates the novel. She is brave, determined, selfless and stoical. All admirable virtues, but not interesting ones. All the elements of Susan's life that might be recast in a new light by the disappearance of her son -- parents, a small-town girlhood in Ohio, workaday life at Harvard and the dreams that initially accompanied marriage -- remain shadowy and unexamined. Gutcheon portrays only one emotion: grief.
Far better drawn than Susan Selky is the complex character of police detective Al Menetti. With a 7-year-old son of his own and an awareness that he mishandled the initial hours of the investigation, Menetti is the classic good cop determined to find Alex Selky. But the detective's zeal is tempered by the restiveness of his own wife, who constantly reminds Menetti that he is devoting more time to Susan's missing son than he is to his own family. As the investigation winds down, Menetti's growing annoyance at Susan's refusal to consider the case closed is understandable.
The novel is set in Ellen Goodman territory. Everyone wears running shoes and down vests. Characters criticize acquaintances by saying, "They're people our age and they live the way my mother and father do . . . they have water goblets and doilies and all they talked about was money." Susan's best friend, Jocelyn, an artist who works with heavy metal, excuses her affair with Susan's husband by saying, "I'm easy." Instead of a charwoman, Susan has Phillipe, a "gay cleaning guy," who even removes the gunk behind the knobs of her stove and gives his clients a Christmas party every year.
Although Gutcheon occasionally attempts social commentary, she is all to accepting of her modern-day Bostonians with more fondue sets than televisions. Instead, Gutcheon aims her barbs at familiar targets like the harpies of television journalism who transform the early days of Susan's vigil into veritable house arrest.
Despite the novel's flaws, Gutcheon handles the preordained conclusion of "Still Missing" with grace, delicacy and restraint. It is the understated Menetti, not Susan, who finally captures our emotions as "he put up both hands to cover his nose and mouth, and for a second or two, he really cried."