The death of a loved one nearly always leaves us bewildered, mumbling self-assuring axioms to fill the void. In Jim Krusoe's new novel, "Erased" (Tin House: 216 pp., $14.95 paper), that void takes on entirely unexpected dimensions: Theodore "Ted" Bellefontaine's dead mother, Helen, appears to have gone neither to heaven nor to hell, but to Cleveland.
Helen is not the ideal mother -- not by any means. After leaving 4-year-old Ted in the care of a foster parent following her husband's death, she spends the majority of her life pursuing her own ends.
As the book opens, Helen has just re-introduced herself to middle-aged Ted when, suddenly, she packs up and leaves. A few weeks later, Ted learns of her death -- a boating accident on Cleveland's Aurora Pond.
"Was I sad?" Ted wonders. "Yes, sort of . . . I suppose I was sad for a past that never existed, one I might have had, but lost." Then, still trying to unpack his grief, Ted receives a postcard. It is from his mother: "Something big has come up. I need to see you, Theodore, and soon."
Death, Ted finds, has drawn its wagons around him. A string of grisly murders perpetrated with his mail-order brand of designer gardening implements is making national headlines and, perplexingly, driving up sales. After another postcard arrives, Ted sets off for Cleveland to find out what's become of his mother -- dead or otherwise. "I would not abandon my mother as she had me," he declares. "My mother would have walked away. I would not do that."
As grief can become a permanent dreamscape, so do events in "Erased." Characters expound at length, more like Greek choruses than ordinary citizens. Women's club meetings devolve into chair-throwing brawls.
A sort of emotional sequel to 2008's "Girl Factory," this novel has the power to draw us into its bizarre world with bold and sometimes blatantly silly steps. The five-page description of the first postcard Ted receives could be a clue that we've stepped through the looking glass.
But, as Ted draws closer to uncovering the truth about his mother -- and with it, the connective tissue between the living and the dead -- Krusoe reminds us that the best prescription for bereavement might just be a healthy dose of action. That better place is just around the next corner.