by Nancy Wigston
This brooding, wise, and very funny first novel by Josh Emmons takes place in the mythical northern California town of Eureka, "a weathered city", population forty thousand, where folks arrive and settle down, despite the "almost granular fog and high cloud cover." No surprise, then, that the people we meet in Eureka are not the go-getters of San Francisco or the trend-setters of L.A.; a wide cast of characters who take some getting to know, they are all lost in some way or another, trying to figure out life and their own roles in it. Emmons's book begins and ends with a description of the town, but the narrative force that pulls everyone's lives together is the literal "loss" of one of its townsfolk, the eponymous Leon Meed, who has disappeared. Or has he?
To be fair, the mysterious vanishing of this burl-wood sculptor is merely a surface disturbance for the people we meet in the novel's first few pages. When Elaine Perry, for instance, whose physician husband is cheating on her in what can charitably described as cavalier fashion, realises her job teaching fourth graders is at risk, she does the only sensible thing. She takes off her clothes and has sex with Principal Giaccone, on his desk, within earshot of young Ryan, the seriously drug-addicted school janitor. Desperate times, desperate measures.
Like Elaine, the people whom Leon Meed starts visiting, apparently against his will, are in some stage of crisis. Yet the characters-ten in all-at the book's core, deal with the Meed apparition in very different ways. Emmons gradually spins us into the lives of this multiplicity of people, creating enough sympathy and affection-even for the repellent among them-to sustain his three-part narrative. In a series of strange scenes, Leon, caught in a time warp of sorts, appears and then disappears: he is drowning in the ocean as Elaine and an elderly man, Silas Carlton, strive to answer his cries for help; next he arrives soaking wet at a rock club where twenty-three-year-old Eve Sieber, the junky janitor's girlfriend, is enjoying the live music; he lurks for a few minutes in a bathroom as the terrified Sadie Jorgenson stands in the shower; he appears clinging to the top of a truck to the wondering eyes of his doctor-a vision, like his second drop-in visit, that Dr. Steve Baker vehemently denies ever happened. Baker has driven to the outskirts of a nearby town, where he fantasises he and his estranged wife could have lived, "not [in] this particular town, because you have to be Native American to live in it, but somewhere this size where real estate is cheap."
Most of these characters, encompassing the whole spectrum of race, age, and sexual preference, are not interested in coming to terms with Leon's apparition; they are too preoccupied with their own losses. There are two exceptions: teenaged wiccan Lillith Fielding tries to ground Leon in life once again with somewhat flaky ceremonies; and recent arrival Joon-sup Kim, believing that he has in fact seen the vanishing man (twice), at first wants to blame the reefer in his hand, then tries to check himself into the psych ward. Dissuaded by Dr. Jorgenson, he opts for meds and therapy instead, an obliquely humorous comment on contemporary society's lack of imagination. A third man, Prentiss, a nurse and unreformed alcoholic, quietly accepts Leon's visit. The majority, however, obey the dictum that teacher Elaine Perry observes in action in her schoolyard: "Children lead dangerous, thrill-seeking lives. Spidering over jungle gyms, roof climbing, bike racing, contact sports. They chose the reckless and perilous . . . Adulthood is all about repressing that instinct."
As events unspool and lives change, Emmons's novel comes to resemble a canvas of modern America, anchored in daily details. Rather than drawing overt attention to his gentle satirizing, he drops comments-like Elaine's observation about children-that we want to quote because they smack of the truth about our times. Here's another example from near the end of the book, again a comment made by Elaine, as she contemplates the demise of another marriage to yet another doctor. "Men left. It's what they did. She would live the next two years alone with Trevor [her son] and after that simply alone until she died. These days your children drifted away (it's what they did) and your house became a museum of which you were the sole custodian, and occasionally your kids and their kids visited-the museum was free to them-to see the exhibit you'd kept in working order." This is wisdom that captures some painful and funny truth, and Emmons does this well.
But counting losses is not what the book is all about (life will give Elaine more than this bitterly wise commentary indicates); instead, it is about the whole shooting match: loss, love, and change. In Part One, folks meet at basket-ware parties, in bars, at gyms, at save-the-waterfowl rallies, at the school performance of South Pacific, and all the while Leon Meed circulates in and out of space and time. Apart from Leon's interworld state, life is hardly boring; parents get old and forgetful, excessive drug-use takes its toll, marriages dissolve, fights occur, people emerge from the closet. Part Two opens with Leon's journal, finally offering us a chance to catch up on what has precipitated his disappearing act, which turns out to be his inexpert attempts to deal with what else-an unbearable loss that occurred ten years before. Everything is explained except for the inexplicable. Leon, in this short section, comes across as sweet and reasonable.
In the novel's third and last part, we revisit the town ten years later. Leon Meed has just passed away, though the police have long assumed he was dead. Emmons pauses to remind us that Archimedes discovered his principle about how to "distinguish real gold from all its fakes and forgeries, its fool's counterfeits." When he did, while in the bath, a rather prosaic spot, he jumped up and shouted "Eureka!", meaning "I have found it!" Emmons writes: "He had shown that you could find what you needed while looking for something else." Meanwhile, a recent journalism graduate has arrived in town, and his newspaper story about Meed, together with his attempts to contact everyone Leon had encountered in his altered state, gives both the narrative and also Eurekans a thrust forward. Not only did Leon list all his encounters in his diary, he also sculpted each person he met while time-travelling, and bequeathed to these individuals their images in wood. Having what they saw acknowledged, and having their decade-younger selves presented to them, transforms these characters' lives, mainly, but not always, for the better. A psychotic named Shane Larson-who seems to have strolled in from a Carl Hiassen novel-runs wild through the last section, lending events manic heft without entirely dominating what seems to be a weird romantic comedy. In the words of Prentiss, the black male nurse who has struggled with alcohol dependency and failed romances throughout the course of the novel: "What he figured was, your posture got worse and your chances for romance decreased, but they never actually hit zero. Love moved in mysterious ways." Amen. ò