Novelist Scott Heim returns with a mournful, reality-torquing thriller.
Wed Feb 27 2008
Photograph: John Gransky
Although Denis Johnson once said that he penned his apocalyptic novel Fiskadoro while under the influence of Jimi Hendrix guitar riffs, fiction writers rarely cop to being directly shaped by nonnarrative art forms. So people interested in cross-genre pollination will be excited to find that Scott Heim’s new drug-spiked mystery, We Disappear, comes appended with not only a suggested-reading list but also a nod to the “dreamy, eerie or sad” records he listened to while he was at work (My Bloody Valentine, early Aphex Twin, etc.). Music isn’t Heim’s only extracurricular inspiration. “I’m a huge horror-movie junkie,” says the 41-year-old Boston-based author, who made his debut in 1995 with Mysterious Skin, a Kansas-set novel of sexually abused outcasts that director Gregg Araki adapted for the screen in 2004. “I really like David Lynch–type films that scare the audience with the power of suggestion, rather than with in-your-face blood and guts.”
A decade in the making, We Disappear originated as Heim’s attempt to indulge his taste for well-modulated creepiness. “After I wrote In Awe, my second novel, I was really keen on writing something that blurred the edges between literary fiction and horror,” he says. “Early on, the book was about a rural Kansas family and the ghost of a young girl buried in their peach orchard.”
Much evolved, the novel is now specter-free, but its effects remain distinctly haunting. Heim’s book follows a New York meth-addicted textbook writer—his name is Scott, and more on this in a moment—back to his hometown in central Kansas to care for his mother, Donna, a widow in the final stages of cancer and quite possibly losing her mind. When Scott was young, Donna was obsessed with missing-children cases, filling scrapbooks with photographs and articles about the disappeared and the dead. At some point the fixation subsided, but now that Donna’s dying, she’s returned to her makeshift detective work, and suddenly tells Scott that she, too, was abducted as a child.
Donna’s story changes significantly every time she tells it. But when enough similarities emerge to convince Scott that his mother was indeed kidnapped, he immerses himself in a quest to identify the couple who briefly trapped Donna—and a young boy—in their basement many years ago.
Heim’s mother-son detective story is a heartland labyrinth, complete with false leads, doppelgängers and a troubling subplot involving a local youth who might or might not be a figment of the narrator’s imagination. All events are filtered through Scott’s meth-skewed mind, but Heim remarkably suspends the story between near-hallucinatory logic and brisk, intricately structured plot development. “This is a book about a woman who’s half crazy and dying and a lead character who’s half crazy and a drug addict,” the author notes. “I wanted to have a really straightforward narrative, but I also wanted to have this quality that would make the reader wonder, Well, what’s actually going on?”
Considering the narrator’s name, readers may also wonder: How much of the novel is based on actual experience? “Fifty-two percent,” Heim laughs. Like Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park—another spooky novel in which the hero shares the author’s name—We Disappear puts a fictional spin on some biographical facts. “I had a drug problem,” the author says. Heim, like Scott, is gay, worked at a textbook company and took care of his mom when she succumbed to cancer in 2003 (though he was drug-free by then). The latter ordeal convinced him to pick up and reimagine the horror book he had put aside. “I started changing the characters to resemble us, and I realized that my writing was flowing much easier,” he says. “I guess at some point I made the decision not to go back.”
Another experience that pushed Heim to finish the book was Araki’s adaptation of Mysterious Skin. “When the movie came out and I started getting feedback from people, it made me realize that I had written something in the past that people were moved by—it made me excited to write again.”
That enthusiasm acts as a quiet backbeat that pushes on beneath We Disappear’s top layer of mournfulness, especially as Scott pulls himself together enough to solve his mother’s mystery. But the thrillerlike conclusion also raises a lingering doubt. “I think the character knows that his solution isn’t entirely true,” Heim says. It’s an apt ending for this gothic tale about the powers and limits of the imagination. Scott’s version of the truth is, in part, an act of creation. And that’s the best he’s going to get.
We Disappear (HarperPerennial, $13.95) is out now. Heim reads Mar 11 at Barnes & Noble Chelsea.