Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2465
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 to hide the fact of her thefts, the girl clearly knows quite a bit and feels deeply. At a county fair, Dotty disappears, only to be found drinking and flirting with a pair of raunchy men. When Aubrey tries to get her to leave, one of the men attacks him. Canny comes to Aubrey’s rescue, slamming the man over the head with a beer mug. In the car, after they make their escape, Canny wonders fearfully whether she might have killed the man. “Probably,” Dotty answers. One winces at the psychic damage being done to the little girl. Yet Aubrey’s simplicity and passivity render him unable to protect her.
After the fairground incident, as they drive farther and farther north, Dotty becomes irritated with Canny. The girl has become a burden, she insists. She wants to leave her somewhere with a note, so that people will take her back to where she came from. Aubrey is terrified at the prospect of losing Canny, yet he does not dare contradict Dotty for fear of losing her as well. Finally, in Massachusetts, Dotty convinces Aubrey to send Canny to a church, ostensibly to seek work for her father. As the girl waits outside to talk to someone, Dotty urges Aubrey to hit the accelerator. Yet he cannot. He calls Canny back to the car, enraging Dotty, and the three drive off. For the moment, he has maintained the status quo, but the trio’s existence is now more tenuous than ever.
By this point—not even one-third of the way through the novel—Morris has created a spellbinding drama depicting the odd yet credible bonds holding three unlikely people together. Rarely has the tension of an unstable family been this vividly, this painfully communicated. However freakish the situation in which Canny exists, the pain and confusion she experiences is that of any child at the mercy of disturbed adults. Similarly, Aubrey’s blundering yet well-meaning attempts at parenting stand for those of ineffectual fathers the world over. As the novel enters its long midsection, however, it loses touch with its basic emotions and begins to slide into grotesquerie and melodrama.
Soon after the incident at the church, Dotty and Aubrey spot a rundown cabin for rent. The people who own the cabin and live next door are called the Hullers. They prove to be a family so slovenly and evil that Faulkner’s Snopeses shine by comparison. Jiggy Huller is a sullen former convict, who is sick of his poverty-stricken life and his hugely fat wife, Alma. Dotty instantly takes a shine to him. At her insistence, their one-night stay at the foul cabin stretches to two and three nights, and then on into the summer. While she and Jiggy disappear for hours, Aubrey busies himself cleaning house for Alma and caring for the malicious Huller children. Canny tries as much as possible to fit in.
The connection with Jiggy inevitably leads to crime. First, Jiggy and Dotty try to involve Aubrey in a robbery set up by a local gangster. This plan gets shoved aside, however, once Dotty starts dropping hints regarding Canny’s identity. Jiggy soon realizes that he can help Dotty unload the child and make a considerable amount of money for all concerned by trying to contact Canny’s rich genetic parents, the Birds. Yet the process of contacting the Birds, as Morris describes it, becomes an aimless and tedious one, leaving time for extensive reflection, at least on the part of Aubrey.
In this section of the novel, the reader finds out such things as how Hyacinth first courted Aubrey and convinced him to marry her, then turned against him for being such a simpleton. One discovers that Dotty was sexually abused by her father and was eventually driven to murder him. One also learns how and why Dotty kidnapped Canny: Dotty was stealing from Canny’s parents when the baby started to cry out, so she simply took her. The details all seem credible, yet they slow the pace of the novel. None of them comes as any surprise, not even the murder Dotty committed, which the reader was surely meant to guess at from the novel’s beginning. There seems to be a structural flaw here; the reader is retreading old terrain while the present-tense story stands still.
Also problematic at this point in the novel is the extraneous, often lurid melodrama that starts to accumulate. Morris studiously avoids giving her reader any direct insight into Dotty’s presumed affair with Jiggy. Yet ample information is given about Jiggy’s involvement with Alma’s younger sister Ellie, his marital squabbles, and Alma’s subsequent miscarriage. Compounding the irrelevance of these subplots is the author’s style, which begins to pile up one grotesque detail after another. Here is a description of Jiggy Huller after a bad night:He reeked of stale booze and old sweat, the smell like a bad taste, like spoiled meat, sour and wormy. Wallace’s eyes seeped open. Huller’s skin was dry, scaly. Flakes of it lifted at the cracked corners of his mouth. His eyes were bloodshot and pouched with circles.
It is not that Morris fails to make her descriptions vivid, but the sheer accumulation of ugliness begins to seem like self-parody. She is simply trying too hard.
More disturbing is an especially cruel subplot the author tosses in to very little effect. Alma’s brother Carl shows up at the Huller manse, only to rape Canny in the barn. From outside Aubrey hears what is going on, but does not have the strength to intervene. Instead, he runs to inform Dotty, who becomes so enraged that she almost smashes Carl’s head in. If this is the author’s device to trigger Dotty’s reminiscence about her own father, it is surely an unnecessary one. Once again, too much is too much.
It is only when it becomes clear not only that Jiggy is planning to turn in Dotty and Aubrey for an extra twenty-five thousand dollars of reward money but also that he could conceivably kill Canny that Aubrey is finally spurred to action. He sneaks Canny out of the Hullers’ in the middle of the night, takes her to the Birds’ house, and tries but again fails to leave her. This time Canny sees what she suspected all along—that Aubrey wants to give her up—and her subsequent pleas to stay with him are truly pathetic.
Jiggy soon finds Aubrey and Canny and forces them back to the house. Now, however, Dotty is the one spurred to action. Realizing that Jiggy plans to turn them in and collect the reward money, she kills the entire Huller family, then takes off with Aubrey and Canny. Still hoping to turn Canny over for the reward, Dotty forces Aubrey to go along with her plan. They contact the Birds, arrange for a drop-off in the middle of a field, and pick up a satchel which they mistakenly believe contains their reward money. Aubrey, however, refuses to abandon Canny in an old shed as Dotty intends, insisting instead on driving the girl back to the Birds’ neighborhood. There, the police are ready for them. Though Aubrey wants to surrender peaceably, Dotty intends to go down shooting. Her recklessness results in a final shootout that costs Aubrey his life.
An epilogue finds Dotty alive and well, as duplicitous as ever. Now a talk-show guest, she has cleverly blamed Aubrey for her entire career, from the killing of her father to the kidnapping of Canny to the scheme resulting in the final shootout. Canny is scarred for life and Aubrey is dead, but Dotty, the moving force behind it all, presumably has a full future ahead of her.
It is with an odd mixture of excitement and dissatisfaction that one finishes Vanished. Fundamentally, the book suffers from structural weaknesses, for having raised the possibility of Canny’s abandonment by page 60, Morris cannot avoid a sense of stasis in her middle and repetition in her harrowing ending. Perhaps the problem is ultimately one of point of view. While Aubrey remains the center of consciousness throughout the novel, the most interesting character—the person most in flux through Vanished’s odd center section—is Dotty, who stays virtually opaque. Nevertheless, this is an exciting debut by a daring and talented writer. Critically very well received, Vanished garnered a National Book Award nomination. Despite its flaws, the book demonstrates that the Southern gothic tradition is alive and well, even in Vermont.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53
Booklist. LXXXIV, May 1, 1988, p. 1477.
Boston Globe. July 19, 1988, p. 58.
Kirkus Reviews. LVI, April 1, 1988, p. 485.
Library Journal. CXIII, May 1, 1988, p. 90.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 26, 1988, p. 3.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, July 3, 1988, p. 5.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, May 6, 1988, p. 93.
Time. CXXXII, July 4, 1988, p. 71.
Vogue. CLXXVIII, June, 1988, p. 84.
The Washington Post. June 22, 1988, p. C2.
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