There’s something to be said for reinventing the wheel, or so the publication of “The Returned,’’ the much-talked about first novel by North Carolina writer Jason Mott, would suggest. Without any sort of apocalyptic events to herald them, the dead begin to show up around the world and create an atmosphere that morphs from wonder to dismay and joy-tinged sorrow and sorrowful joy to amazement, causing disruption through many layers of society from political to military to religious as well as making for rifts in the fabric of family and personal relations.
If you read this description without Mott’s name attached to it you would say: Ah, a newly found novel by the late Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago. Certainly Saramago’s novels “Blindness’’ and “Death With Interruptions’’ both proceed in almost exactly this fashion. From the premise to the unfolding of the results of the premise, with, in one novel, blindness striking almost the entire population of an unnamed nation or, in the other, a nation suddenly subject to a long spell in which the sick and the aging simply do not die.
Brilliant, an homage to Saramago! I thought as I began reading. Though nothing in the advance publicity seems to suggest that any among Mott’s early readers has noticed this similarity. In a Publishers Weekly interview Mott himself evokes a lot of names, from Homer to Cormac McCarthy, as influences, and the early review in that same publication — and in some others — raves about the intensity and pathos of the book.
I don’t think I can go that far. As I read my way through Mott’s opening chapter, which gives us the Hargraves, an aging Southern couple in a small country town discovering some visitors on their front porch — a government agent in suit and tie and an 8-year-old boy — my response was, here’s something between a great idea and a plot gimmick that will possibly make for an interesting novel.
The government man works for a newly formed agency that helps to repatriate into the world of the living the dead people who have been returning in increasingly large numbers. The boy, Jacob William Hargrave, happens to be the couple’s long-dead son, who drowned in a nearby river on his eighth birthday decades ago.
Everything in the novel follows from this initial encounter: the Hargraves’ struggle to reintegrate their still-young son into their now old age; the government man’s attempts to reintegrate into society the mysteriously resurrected Americans (with a few foreigners who happen to return on US soil thrown in for good measure) in the face of a rising anti-returned from the dead coalition turned militia.
Mott, who has published two collections of poetry and some short stories, gives us most of the story in a straightforward pulp-magazine style, in which, as in Saramago, the philosophical and social questions trump any questions of magical-realistic import. The passion seems to lie elsewhere.
Certainly the mother of a Sierra Leonean returnee who shows up in, of all places, Michigan might see all this differently. As her daughter explains to the bureaucrat in charge of US Returned, her mother would often announce that “[p]eople and events of wonder and magic are the lifeblood of the world.” But here no comets portend the worldwide resurrection, no prophets predict it. It simply happens, and as in a scientific experiment we observe the sometimes painful, sometimes poignant results that Mott manages to make interesting, despite a certain overall flatness to his narrative.
It’s almost as if Saramago himself has returned to give us one last novel, which happens, paradoxically, to be Jason Mott’s first. By itself, “The Returned” is a good enough book — it makes you think hard about the proposition it puts forward and wonder how it might affect your own life if it did happen here, and it should make you want to watch this new writer to see where he goes next, back into obscurity or on into a literary career worth saluting. But is it worth all the fanfare? I’m afraid not.
Alan Cheuse is the book commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.