Charm buzzes all around Timothy Schaffert’s new novel, but don’t be fooled. It’s the story of a steadfast, multi-generational family in a small Nebraska town . . . that just happens to be obsessed with death and missing children. “The Coffins of Little Hope” is like an Edward Gorey cartoon stitched in pastel needlepoint. Its creepiness scurries along the edges of these heartwarming pages like some furry creature you keep convincing yourself you didn’t see.
I’ve complained in this space before about the profusion of child abductions in contemporary fiction — such an easy way to manipulate our sympathies — but Schaffert gets a pass because he’s made that mania the very subject of this quirky tale. “It’s unsettling,” one character notes, “the delight we take in stories of endangered children.” But in the small Midwestern town of this novel, 11-year-old Lenore may not be in danger. In fact, even if Lenore was snatched by her mother’s weird boyfriend, she may still be alive.
Or maybe Lenore never really existed.
All this speculation comes to us through the skeptical voice of 83-year-old Essie Myles, who’s been writing obituaries since she dropped out of the eighth grade to work for her father’s newspaper, the County Paragraph. Her grandson, Doc, owns the paper now, but Essie’s work hasn’t changed much. She’s still one of the town’s old “death merchants,” those inconspicuous professionals who prepare the bodies, play the organ and dig the graves. “I’m as much a part of the traditions of death as a gilded lily,” she brags. Her job is to see past the survivors’ grief and “breathe vivid life back into their beloveds, in idiosyncratic detail.” And that’s exactly what she does in these short, evocative chapters that describe the “summer of Lenore.” (That Edgar Allan Poe allusion is perfect.)
The actual facts of Lenore’s disappearance wander in and out of this story like stray cats, as Schaffert withholds almost as much information as he discloses to make us prying participants in the town’s ghoulish obsession. Ever since a distraught woman stumbled into church claiming that her daughter had vanished, everyone wants to know about the tragedy of Lenore. Everyone. Doc’s tireless newspaper coverage has attracted subscribers from around the world. “On this girl we pinned all hopes of our dying town’s salvation,” Essie says. “She became our leading industry, her sudden nothingness a valuable export, and we considered changing the name of our town to hers.”
News trucks line the road up to her mother’s fallow farm, “The Crippled Eighty,” a forest of unharvested Christmas trees. A famous psychic with her own Discovery Channel reality show comes to “read” pieces of a broken mirror. A vague sketch of Lenore’s abductor starts trending on Google. Runaways, addicts and other distraught parents — disciples of grief known as “Lenorians” — hold vigils in the mother’s house, protecting her and defending her claims. “The legend of Lenore,” Essie notes ruefully, “would save our town from a quaint decline into barbershop quartets and taxpayer-supported ice-cream parlors.”
This satire of the popular exploitation of macabre crimes works only because Schaffert has such a light touch. His sleight-of-hand storytelling constantly draws our eye to other curious aspects of the plot, little set pieces woven from strands of comedy and woe.
One of the millions of people obsessed with Lenore’s disappearance, for instance, is Wilton Muscatine, the wealthy author of Gothic children’s novels that sound something like Lemony Snicket’s “Series of Unfortunate Events.” With eyes that “looked as if freshly bought from an oculist’s cabinet,” he’s a deliciously grim character, mourning the loss of his own daughter and the 8 million trees that have given their lives for his popular books. To repent for this environmental destruction, he insists that his final novel, “The Coffins of Little Hope,” be published on paper handmade from “pulverized coffee chaff and dryer lint and other charming refuse.”
It’s just so hard to know where the sparks of Schaffert’s parody are going to land. Harry Potter fans take cover — Satirextremis! And the strange way in which Muscatine’s books become woven into Lenore’s case makes a chilling statement about our urge to romanticize grief.
But the richest part of the story concerns Essie Myles’s grandchildren and great-grandchild, a small hodgepodge of survivors who manage to live and work together by keeping their resentments and disappointments tempered with affection. As Schaffert moves through this elliptical story, the plot remains mere gossamer, but we gradually learn more about the fractured Myles clan. There’s real pain here and longing, too, sprinkled amid their efforts to form a workable family from the survivors. After all, every child vanishes eventually in one way or another, an inevitability that haunts all parents. “Maybe that was what made us so vulnerable to the mythology of Lenore,” Essie thinks, “the fragility of childhood, and the heartbreak of it.”
That could be a pat, sepia-toned theme, but Schaffert blends his sentimentality with enough melancholy humor to keep this novel alluringly strange to the very last page.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
THE COFFINS OF LITTLE HOPE
By Timothy Schaffert
Unbridled. 262 pp. $24.95