Only the lonely suffer in small town mystery

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 23, 2013

“The Next Time You See Me,” by Holly Goddard Jones. Touchstone. 372 pp. $24.99.

“The Next Time You See Me” is a murder mystery and a warning — don’t expect happiness, it’s too hard to find.
The reader will quickly know who the victim is, and author Holly Goddard Jones makes that person someone of questionable morals, poor choices, the murder almost an I-told-you-so moment, though Jones will make you wait a good long time to find out whodunit.
The book covers a lot of issues: Precocious teens misbehave — the favored and the rich bully the less popular students, and escape unscathed. Love is neither fulfilling nor comforting; rather, it’s disappointing and suspect or inappropriate or detrimental. Lonely people just get lonelier. There’s not much hope.
The story starts in the classroom of the hapless Mrs. Mitchell, more victim than teacher. The popular rich boy, Christopher, makes an outrageous statement, earning him another trip to the principal. Emily, the poor social misfit, is infatuated with Christopher. On one of her solitary walks in the woods, where she imagines Christopher as her companion, Emily finds the body, covered by some dirt and leaves.
Amazingly, she tells no one. She’s so happy to have special knowledge she won’t share it with even her parents. This strikes the reader as odd, even for a 13-year-old girl. “She was afraid — but there was also curiosity. Even possessiveness. If she told, she wouldn’t be able to have another look at the body, and she realized that she wanted to. Just once more. Just to make sure.”
Susanna Mitchell, the insecure teacher, conflicted mother and chafing wife of the high school band director, is the connection to many of the other characters, but she is not the main character. It’s hard to say who is. Susanna is tired of husband Dale, who spends all his time with the band. She feels ignored and unfulfilled. They argue a lot. Susanna comes from a family of alcoholics, so when Dale sees her with a glass of wine, his disapproval weighs heavily, as does his disapproval of her sister, Ronnie, who has a history of bad decisions. If Dale had his way, neither alcohol nor Ronnie would ever enter his house again. He is not at all sympathetic when Susanna realizes something is wrong with Ronnie.
The reader has put enough pieces together to know what that is, but it’s a long journey to the resolution. First, Emily catches Christopher and his girlfriend in a sex act at school; Christopher’s reaction is to pelt her with food and cruel words in the cafeteria.
Factory worker Wyatt, another lonely person who doesn’t fit in, seals his fate by going to a bar with his younger, thoughtless co-workers, who function on an adolescent level. They get him drunk and abandon him. Another lesson to the lonely. He meets Sarah at one of the bars and drunkenly asks her to dance. She’s a sad soul, too, a hard-working nurse with few friends, no male companionship and little hope of a future.
Ronnie walks into the pathetic scene of Wyatt stuck with the bar tab and no ride, fresh from a confrontation with a man she thought cared enough to be faithful — at least while he’s in town. Ronnie responds to hopeless cases, so she helps Wyatt with the tab and a lift. Next thing Wyatt remembers is crushing pain in his chest. He wakes up in the hospital, where a nurse — it just happens to be Sarah — tells him he’s had a heart attack.
Susanna goes to the police for help tracking down Ronnie, and meets detective Tony Joyce, who just happens to be a former classmate she had a meaningful encounter with in high school — one that ended before it started because Tony is black, and this is the South. Tony moved on, becoming a self-absorbed, egotistical college baseball player who used women as often as they offered themselves to him. When he blows out his back carrying a big-screen TV, his career is over. Now he’s dependent on Darvocet and wondering if it’s time to make a change. Susanna sees Tony as an escape and a way to get back at Dale.
The feeling of the novel, set in a cold, fall landscape, is dark and gloomy. The characters are handicapped by bad decisions, odd behavior and unlucky circumstances. Jones switches characters from chapter to chapter, narrating from the third person viewpoint, but playing close to the vest.
If you are more than 35, you might notice ageism in the novel. It’s easy to see that a 13-year-old would think his 28-year-old teacher is ancient, but that perspective seems to apply to everyone. Ronnie comes across as washed up and wasted. She’s just 32. Susanna describes her widowed mother as if she’s a dowager of 80 — but she’s just 60. And kind-hearted Sarah, painted as fighting off the effects of encroaching age, is all of 43.
Nothing is resolved after the killer is revealed, a popular way to end novels recently. The reader does not know if strange Emily will recover from her trauma, if cocky Christopher has learned to feel something, which has always scared him. Susanna hints at a final decision about her marriage, but the brief encounter with Tony has little to no meaning in the long run. If you are the sensitive type, you will feel sorry for these people. Poor, misfit Emily; poor unhappy Ronnie; poor lonely Wyatt; poor hopeful Sarah.
Jones must have intended to hold up a mirror to the bullies and judgmental people of the world. She must have known lost people like Emily. Maybe she knew a Ronnie. It’s a sad fate she imagines for old and young alike, a commentary that the lonely shall remain so, or reach out at their own peril; that unhappiness is a given and there aren’t many options.
It is a book worth discussing, and readers will have that opportunity on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Trinity Oaks Retirement Community. Jones will talk and answer questions as part of the Summer Reading Challenge. Let’s find out what she has to say.