Near the end of “Remember Me Like This,” the extraordinary first novel by Bret Anthony Johnston, Eric, the father of Justin, a young boy who is found and returned to his family after disappearing four years earlier, reflects that “[r]eally, once the worst happens, it’s always happening. It’s never not happening”
Johnston is director of creative writing at Harvard, author of the award-winning story collection “Corpus Christi,” and editor of “Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer,” one of the most useful and original books about fictional craft in recent years. In his debut, he offers an achingly beautiful and psychologically insightful portrait of a family rebuilding after a traumatic event.
Told through multiple points of view during the course of one long, hot summer, Johnston tracks how this family and their community manage the aftermath of Justin’s unexpected return. External events drive the characters’ internal changes, making this literary novel plot-driven and suspenseful. Johnston reveals the ways in which trauma affects individuals as well as all those around them in profound and unpredictable ways.
During the years Justin was gone, Eric and Laura Campbell, together with their younger son, Griffin, have lived “disfigured” by grief, moving through their days in the small Gulf Coast community of Southport, Texas, in sluggish agony, wondering what happened to Justin. Was he kidnapped? Did he run away? Is he still alive?
The grief support groups in church basements leave Eric and Laura exhausted and more stricken; the postcard with a California postmark that reads “DON’T STOP LOOKING’’ generates nothing but false hope; Eric withers inside a sad but ordinary love affair. Laura, “a woman who used to be pretty and capable,” spends long days as a volunteer looking after a sick dolphin. She signs up for shifts under her maiden name, a kind of desperate reinvention, inexplicable even to her. She is blurry and light with a low-grade despair that never quite lifts, reflecting that “once your son vanishes . . . how easy it would be to follow him into nothingness.”
When Justin returns, it is a scene so devastating yet utterly surprising that only a novelist of tremendous skill could manage it without tipping into melodrama. Told over the course of several months between Justin’s emergence and the planned celebration of his return, coinciding with the town’s annual Shrimporee, readers witness the reunited Campbell family members as they struggle to adjust, thrilled to have Justin back, but confused about how to treat him, how to act, how to feel.
Swamped by relief and love, they pad around the house, sinking back into a familiar but new routine, re-experiencing, “the coded systems of loving and being loved,” awed by their beloved’s return yet painfully cognizant of the fact that his kidnapper and abuser is still in the world, and most importantly, gripped by the knowledge that “if something can be lost . . . then its loss is always just a breath away.”
Eric braces for the worst and prepares to take vengeance when Justin’s kidnapper is released into the custody of his parents. Laura, who imagines she sees her son’s abuser everywhere, reads books on Stockholm syndrome and traumatic bonding. Slowly the family begins to learn what happened to Justin. A lesser novelist might have treated such charged material with prurient interest and ripped-from-the-headlines drama instead of as a tender and compelling portrait of recovery.
All the residents of Southport — Justin’s parents, his grandfather, his brother, the voyeurs of grief who ask for the returned boy’s autograph, “seeing his pain as an invitation” — have a perspective in the story, mimicking the nature of tragedy itself.
The only voice missing is that of Justin, whose perspective we only learn about through his interactions with his parents, his grandfather, and his brother; he is not given his own point of view, although all the characters orbit around him. This is a stroke of artistic genius, as well as a deep respect for these lovingly drawn characters. In a world where the most salacious details of physical and sexual abuse against children are trotted out on the evening news, Justin’s private trauma keeps a firm line of tension in the narrative, even as the details of his ordeal are unknowable to those around him.
The book is alive with the fully imagined inner lives of each of its characters. Johnston’s scenes are exquisite, the internal and external worlds kept in taut balance. That Johnston is a terrific stylist who wields lyrical language in a way that makes it seem natural and unforced makes the single false note — the clichéd metaphor of phantom-limb pain to describe Eric’s feelings when Justin is gone — that much more glaring in this fully immersive novel in which the language is luminous and the delivery almost flawless.
What does rebuilding look like for individuals and for small towns in which each person is important and missed when they are gone? Johnston tackles these issues with empathy and tact, rendering the many faces of loss with acute observational skill. Readers will be surprised and moved by this novel in which being found is only the beginning of the story.