Holly Goddard Jones. The Next Time You See Me. New York: Touchstone Books, 2013. 384 pp. $24.99, cloth.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about the writing of Holly Goddard Jones without expounding upon the virtuosity of her prose. Given how she traffics so easily between interiority and action, perception and power, a critic might be tempted to stage a review of her new novel, The Next Time You See Me, as a sort of writer’s workshop on how to best use exposition and what it means to reveal a character’s personality while simultaneously increasing their mystery and allure.
Stylistically—and it must be conceded that this represents a coarse, cut-out dichotomy—writers thrive in one territory or the other: either the writer relishes in the Why of the Interior, whereby the evaluation of how a character is capable of what he or she ultimately does trumps the actual deed or misprision (Perhaps Roth, Paul Auster, or even William James could be positioned here); or the writer invests themselves in a clear and present Testimony of Events, whereby the author entrusts the reader’s imagination to speculate and attach possible motives to a corresponding action or exchange of dialogue (I think of Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and Hemingway). Again, rather than pigeonhole any specific author’s work, this binary aims to invite discussion and highlight the fact that Holly Goddard Jones seems to blend the two for optimum effect. Not only does the accuracy of her insight dazzle us with how she’s able to peer through everyday interactions into the deeper truths and contradictions of personality, she deftly maneuvers through the pivotal, high-stakes scenes where the major threads of her novel’s world come to a head.
Of course, these types of considerations would lead audiences to believe that Goddard Jones is a sort of writer’s writer, a literary aficionado’s delight not meant for enjoyment by the general public, but this would be an incredible misstep given how eminently readable this book is. Staged, in a sense, like a mystery or thriller, The Next Time You See Me focuses on the events surrounding the murder of Ronnie Eastman and the discovery of her remains. Indeed, if The Next Time You See Me could be used to instruct creative writing students in anything, it would be how to successfully withhold information without unfairly manipulating the reader. Though we learn very late in the novel the actual details surrounding Ronnie’s death, the revelation only confirms facts we’ve safely assumed early on in the book. What we learn isn’t the murderer’s identity, but how such a thing was possible, even inevitable, and it takes exactly three hundred and thirty pages to establish this. So, yes, you can call Holly Goddard Jones a writer’s writer and lecture about her work in creative writing classrooms, but you won’t be doing so at the expense of her readership.
As events unfold and the citizens of Roma began to wonder how such a “crazy killer” could live so unassumingly among them in their town, the reader realizes that the murderer can do so because he is a product of this community. Roma—though a fictional construction—resembles many Kentucky towns. As a native Kentuckian, I can attest to this town’s rigid social stratification. No, it doesn’t take much wealth to put you at the top of the pyramid in such a small economy, especially in the early ’90s in which this novel takes place, but if you exist on the other side of the fence—the son or daughter of a factory worker or laborer—certain opportunities begin to close their doors on you pretty quickly and, once they start, they never stop.
Perhaps, this is why Wyatt Powell—at least to this reviewer—shines brightest among the catalogue of personalities we encounter. No character—aside from Emily Houchens (a socially challenged thirteen-year-old who fantasizes about the boy who is the cruelest to her)—garners as much sympathy as this overweight underachiever. By the time we encounter Wyatt, he’s all but resigned himself to his lonely skillet breakfasts, and his dog, Boss, is his only comfort. As he meets Sarah and embarks upon the first reciprocated romantic relationship of his adult life, we find ourselves cheering for him despite the darker portents we suspect.
In Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter wrote that the task of fiction is “…to expose elements that are kept secret in a personality, so that the mask over that personality (or any system) falls either temporarily or permanently… [allowing] something of value to come up.” No statement could better assess the accomplishment of The Next Time You See Me and its approach toward the citizens of Roma. Though the masks come off from a half-dozen or so characters, the preponderance of these revelations remain private and contained, and hardly anyone comes completely clean, even to him- or herself. The bratty, yet intelligent Chris Shelton does begin to see that he has some attraction toward the geeky and sequestered Emily and that this affinity has amplified his gross mistreatment of her, but he will continue to suppress this attraction because she’s socially unacceptable as a romantic partner. Likewise, Tony (the cop assigned to Ronnie’s disappearance) does engage in an illicit affair with Ronnie’s sister, Susanna, but does so more out of convenience than to reciprocate Susanna’s genuine attraction to him, leaving her on an awkward precipice as the events of the novel close. In this way, Holly Goddard Jones manages to reveal characters while maintaining Roma’s status quo. Despite all that she drags out of the shadows, the lights in this narrow stretch of Kentucky remain pretty dim. As a writer you have to admire the vision and fidelity to life; as a reader you have to appreciate the ride.