Once upon a time there was a little girl in a playground who was taken away to a different world. She was looked after by a kindly older couple and found a new playmate in an older boy who looked quite a bit like she did. Then one day, this idyll was disrupted and the little girl was returned to her previous life, left to spend the rest of her days longing for a paradise perhaps of her own creation.
As fairy tales go, this one sounds as if it came from the minds of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. But this particular Hansel and Gretel-esque distillation, the anchor of Scott Heim's suspenseful third novel, "We Disappear," won't surprise those familiar with his previous two. "Mysterious Skin" (1995) was a harrowing account of repressed abuse cloaked in soft-focus Kansas fog; "In Awe" (1997) was a more overt tale of revenge as dreamed up by three disparate outcasts.
The new novel has the pungent whiff of autobiography. It was developed during a decade-long absence marked by writer's block, drug addiction and the death of the author's mother, Heim reveals in an accompanying question-and-answer discussion. Clearly, this is a writer well acquainted with darkness, although it would be a stretch to say he is comfortable with it.
"We Disappear" ventures down a twitchy, discomfiting path, with small disturbances blowing up into larger ones, like a film camera zooming in for a high-definition close-up. At midrange, the camera eye shows Scott (the book's narrator and the author's namesake) chucking a struggling noncareer as a part-time writer for a Manhattan textbook publisher and returning to his Kansas home, where his mother, Donna, is slowly dying of an excruciating form of cancer. Donna's stalwart friend Dolores, who wears pink-framed glasses and whose breath smells of bourbon, would seem to be relegated to scenery-chewing, while Scott's older sister, Alice, makes a cameo appearance, one blurred by estrangement from her family and her sense of upward mobility.
Even when the camera zooms in, we are met with "uncertain truths and partial, interchangeable lies." Scott's return is precipitated by a phone call in which Donna utters, "Finally, he has a name." That name is Henry Barradale, a murdered Kansas teenager whose plight is the latest missing-child story to capture Donna's attention, a long-running obsession she tries to pass to her son. "Together we focused on the flickerings, the accidentals most others would miss. I remembered this practice from before, all those years ago. . . . Because I couldn't mirror her fascinations, I'd keep her satisfied by embellishing." That comes in handy as Donna's demands careen further out of control.
Scott's ability to humor his mother not only offers a credible explanation for why he drifts into a quasi-detective role but also explains the specter of foreboding and creepiness hovering over "We Disappear." Even in extreme close-up, Heim hides things in plain sight. The presence of Otis, another teenager who bears a startling resemblance to Scott as a youth, and also to the murdered Henry, telegraphs a chain of events that implicates mother and son while masking another, more nebulous series of links. Donna's missing-children obsession is on display in the collage of her chosen subjects pasted on the kitchen walls and in a scrapbook that is a cruel parody of a family album. But again, the obvious hides the more subtle truth of a parallel trauma in her own childhood -- a story she can never tell the same way twice. We need to add all the versions to detect what really happened to her.
"We Disappear" treads a gossamer-thin line between profundity and disbelief. It's kept afloat by Heim's knack for offering unreliable narration and conveying raw emotion. That sense of risk generally pays off because Donna and Scott's symbiotic disturbances allow them to turn away from, then face, their own mortality. Examining the lost chapters in the lives of others is the ultimate distraction from self-examination, so much so that even the prospect of truth cannot deter their protective delusions or alter the iron-clad, dysfunctional bond that shuts others out. The book's serious misstep, however, comes near the end, when closure appears to be at hand for Donna. The suspense is palpable, but the explanations don't quite add up.
It would be comforting, as Scott muses near the novel's close, to know the whole truth, to wrap the story up in a tidy little bow. "We Disappear" is more honest, and thus more troubling, for it reflects the stark knowledge that truth is only an amalgam of experience, a collection of individual shards that don't coalesce into a pleasing whole. As Heim suggests, the search for truth invites the Hansels and Gretels of the world to follow the wrong adult home, the Alices to peer down the rabbit hole -- and fantasy to cover up the nasty grime of reality.