Paul Tremblay’s suspenseful new novel takes a close and painful look at how the disappearance of a 13-year-old boy shatters his family.
Tommy Sanderson lives in a town near Boston with his single mother, Elizabeth, and younger sister, Kate. One night when he’s sleeping over at a friend’s house he and his pals Josh and Luis help themselves to a six-pack and slip off to their favorite refuge, a huge boulder called Devil’s Rock in a nearby state park. Around midnight, according to the other boys, Tommy inexplicably raced into the night and didn’t return. Soon the police and scores of volunteers are looking for him.
The novel moves between the continuing search for Tommy and flashbacks involving him and his friends in the weeks leading up to the night he vanishes. Tommy’s uncertain fate is a crushing blow to his mother, grandmother and sister. His mother agonizes about whether she was somehow at fault. Too little discipline? Too much? Has her seemingly happy, level-headed son run away from her, as his father did?
Tremblay is a prizewinning writer of supernatural horror fiction (“A Head Full of Ghosts”), and “Devil’s Rock” reflects his fascination with the unseen. Elizabeth calls upon her now-dead ex-husband for otherworldly assistance and becomes convinced that she has seen Tommy’s ghost: “She truly believes Tommy has somehow visited her, and that means her son is not lost or a runaway or is anything else but dead.” It’s a touching portrait of a mother’s suffering.
Tremblay also writes well about the lives of teenage boys. Before Tommy vanishes, we study him and his two friends as they talk, argue and boast at their Devil’s Rock hideout. Their obsessions include Minecraft, bicycles, a fungus that allegedly turns South American ants into zombies, sex in the abstract, Iron Man, “Dawn of the Dead” and middle-school shenanigans.
We also watch their budding friendship with a glib and mysterious young man named Arnold who seems to be in his early 20s. They met Arnold outside a 7-Eleven and he begins hanging out with them at Devil’s Rock. He brings beer, which they don’t much like but pretend to drink. Arnoldis a big talker and his interest flatters them, even as they wonder “why Arnold would hang out with them, three unpopular eighth graders to be.” The reader fears the worst.
Tremblay’s portrait of these boys is arguably brilliant, although it can also be maddening. The teens use a lot of seriously dumb profanity and endlessly call each other a “hardo,” which translates as someone who tries too hard to act tough or cool and can lead to sentences like “My mother was so not hardo that I’d end up staying with the hardest of hardos.” We are reminded that close exposure to the minds of 13-year-old boys carries the risk of permanent brain damage for someone of mature years.
Yet the novel also offers an abundance of fine writing. Unwelcome visitors to Tommy’s home “eventually float toward the open door like lost balloons.” Tommy’s baseball cap hangs by itself near the back door “like a dead leaf that hasn’t yet fallen.” Tremblay pays close attention to Tommy’s sister, 11-year-old Kate, and after a mother-daughter spat we’re told that “Elizabeth loves this smart-ass version of her daughter so much it breaks her heart, because it’s impossible that she can love equally all the versions of Kate to come.”
Tremblay also has a sharp eye for the nitty-gritty of everyday life. “Elizabeth gargles and spits twice, then shuts off the light with the water still running.” A basketball, closely examined, is “Boston Celtics green and white, an outdoor ball, the kind that is all rubber, smells like a tire, and bounces as wildly as an excited electron.” “Tommy’s bike was a beater his mom bought on Craigslist; only the rear brakes worked correctly.” Spot-on snapshots such as these remind us that writers who see the little things are often the ones who can embrace large issues as well.
Ultimately, Tremblay, who has two children, has written a book about parenthood, one that will be most fully appreciated by others who have known the mingled joy and heartbreak that accompany that greatest of life’s challenges.
Patrick Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Paul Tremblay
Morrow. 327 pp. $25.99