Mary McGarry Morris’ Vanished stands out of the literary crop of its time like an icicle on the Fourth of July. In a climate increasingly dominated by trifling accounts of yuppies or yuppies-gone-bad, Morris’ taut account of three socially marginal people seems striking indeed. Yet she is writing in a distinct tradition—a tradition older than the spare realism of Raymond Carver or William Kennedy, who share Morris’ preoccupation with outcasts but not her narrative drive. Although Vanished takes place primarily in New England, its antecedents are Southern novels, most particularly the more sensational works of William Faulkner.
The novel’s protagonist, Aubrey Wallace, is a strange combination of Faulkner’s Benjy Compson and Byron Bunch. A simple-minded road worker well into middle age, Wallace is one of the most passive heroes in recent fiction. He is someone who has allowed fate and other people to dictate his life almost completely. The novel’s point of view is primarily but not entirely Wallace’s, and insofar as it documents any significant growth of character that too is Wallace’s. Entering into the fictive world of Vanished means fine-tuning one’s sensibilities to the severely restricted awareness of its hero, a man by no means deficient in feeling, but who is practically incapable of translating thought into constructive action.
Vanished begins with a prologue that is breathtaking in its headlong exposition. Wallace, part of the county labor force, is putting tar down on a Vermont road in the summer heat. Childlike and uncomprehending, he has only gotten the job through the efforts of his wife, Hyacinth, whose father, Hazlitt Kluggs, is the foreman. The rest of the road crew goes off to a tavern for lunch, but Wallace has brought his own sandwich and remains. As he eats, Wallace contemplates his domineering and unhappy wife and his two sons, Arnold and Answan. He thinks of Hyacinth that morning, telling the boys about a local man whose daughter gruesomely murdered him. Wallace does not like to hear this sort of thing.
Then a teenage girl appears down the road wearing nothing but a man’s shirt and a pair of panties. She says that she has not eaten in three days. Wallace gives her the rest of his lunch, which she consumes without a thank you. He shows her where to wash in a nearby river. She pulls him in after her, then drags him back ashore because he does not know how to swim. When they return to the road, she jumps in Wallace’s father-in-law’s truck and takes off, pausing several yards down for the distraught Wallace to catch up and climb in. Wallace’s only concern is to get the truck back for Kluggs. Yet the girl is in control, not Wallace. She seduces him that night and continues driving the next day. Feeling utterly lost, Wallace lets her lead him, trying to think up excuses to offer his wife and father-in-law.
It is what the girl does the second day that ties her to Wallace irrevocably. When they pull into a town for automobile repairs, she takes the keys and disappears. Moments later, she reappears carrying a baby girl. She shouts at Wallace to drive or they will both end up in jail. Wallace, terrified, obeys her. At that moment, he severs himself from his past life forever.
Thus, in a mere ten pages, Morris establishes a situation which, baldly summarized, seems to stretch the bounds of credulity. Yet one gives oneself over to the author much as Wallace gives himself over to the teenage girl, Dotty Johnson. Told in a hard, unanalytical manner, Morris’ narrative has the compellingly inscrutable aura of actual crimes one reads about in tabloids. At the same time, however, the author accustoms the reader to a breakneck pace almost impossible for her to sustain.
The novel proper begins five years later, with Aubrey, Dotty, and the girl, Canny, living somewhere in the South. A truant officer has been inquiring after Canny, who is almost seven years old, so they leave their apartment in the dead of the night, sneaking out without paying the rent. One can tell that they are accustomed to this kind of escapade—that their existence has evolved into the peripatetic wandering of a trio of renegades on the lam.
It is immediately clear that Dotty, Aubrey, and Canny have formed some sort of makeshift family. In fact, the interest of this part of the novel lies in sorting out the ways in which bonds have been formed in the most unlikely of situations. Canny, the reader discovers, retains no memory of her actual parents and believes Aubrey and Dotty to be her father and mother. She has grown into a game, loving little girl who clings to these two with all of her might. Underlying her love is the unspoken fear that somehow, for some unknown reason, her two “parents” might eventually abandon her.
Aubrey still wonders about Hyacinth and his two sons, yet he is mostly reconciled to his life with Canny and Dotty. He proves to be a warm, well-meaning father. It is he who checks Canny’s hair for nits and sees to it that she is fed. Yet he remains incapable of initiating significant action. Dotty, as ever, calls the shots. Having grown from a disturbed adolescent into a voluptuous and reckless young woman, she poses the one obvious threat to whatever stability this family unit possesses, for she is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the life that she herself created.
Through a number of minor episodes, the reader learns how these three people survive. At a grubby diner, Dotty distracts the counter man by flirting so as to steal some doughnuts for Canny. Later, she disappears for a few minutes, then shows up with a thirty-dollar dress with the tags still attached. Meanwhile, Canny is suffering from chills and a fever. Yet fear and poverty make a visit to a doctor out of the question.
A major issue for Aubrey and for the reader becomes the effect of all of this on the little girl. Though Aubrey tries to shield Canny from Dotty’s fits of irritation and tries...
(The entire section is 2465 words.)