February 25, 2013
In a small town it’s normal for everyone to get in your business—for the community to know about the women that run around, the men that abuse, the spoiled kids with their sense of entitlement, and the loners who belong to nobody. Set in Roma, Kentucky, The Next Time You See Me (Touchstone Books) by Holly Godard Jones is a literary thriller that links a variety of perspectives into a complicated web of deceit and lies that replace hope and peace with bittersweet longings for what might have been. But buried in there is a lesson about perseverance, a glimmer of optimism, and the eternal complications that are the duality of man. This is the mirror that Holly Goddard Jones holds up, as we bear witness to these defining moments of destruction, as well as revelation.
We follow a variety of lost and lonely people around the countryside, each of them trying to find ways to fit in, to feel less alone and more complete. There is Susanna, the middle grade teacher continuously lessened by those around her. There is her sister, Ronnie, always up for a good time but stuck in a dead-end job, who eventually goes missing, leaving a trail of clues in her absence. There are the kids, Emily a loner, and Christopher a popular, good-looking boy—both perceived to be one thing, but often quite different when alone. There is Wyatt the aging factory worker, teased by the young guns at work, alone but for his dog, Boss, just trying to get through each day. And there is Tony, one of the few black citizens of Roma, who is a fading athlete and the town’s lone detective. Their stories overlap, intersect, and influence each other; they take us deep into the woods of rural Kentucky with voices that echo over the hills, mingle with the barks of fenced in dogs, and become obscured by the sounds of rustling leaves and rubber tires on gravel roads which lead us in circles.
Holly Goddard Jones creates characters that are both typical in their behavior—people we know and recognize—but also layered with emotional depth and longing that transcends stereotype. Ronnie is not just a simple woman, beat down by her factory job, looking for someone to take her home—she is also a sister, a friend, and an aunt. Take these thoughts by Abby, Susanna’s daughter, about how Ronnie looked:
“Of course, Abby, who so loved long hair, was also the child who’d said, ‘Aunt Ronnie’s a princess,’ the time Ronnie came over in her trashiest club-crawling wear and dark purple eye shadow, hair sprayed to the rafters. Susanna laughed at the memory, then swallowed against the tears. How she wanted her sister right now.”
So we get not only the worry and tension of Susanna missing her sister, but her forgiveness of Ronnie’s imperfections. For a moment, in this memory, Susanna sees Ronnie as her daughter does—shiny and sparkling, laughing and full of cheer, flitting about the room, a princess—not the shadowy, wrinkled and bruised woman the night will leave behind. By showing us these characters at their best and their worst, we are allowed to witness their history, and withhold our judgments, to simply see them as human beings—flawed, but still full of hope and desire.
This is the game that Holly Goddard Jones plays well throughout this narrative. She shows us each of the characters in moments of weakness, and then moments of strength. We get to see Wyatt in a number of ways, back and forth between loser and vindicator, loner and buddy, romantic and manipulator, sinner and saint. He is a complicated study, and yet, he is every man—longing for the simple things in life, just a moment with his dog, a job that doesn’t destroy him, friends to have a beer with, and a woman to call his own. We see him, over the course of the novel, evolve and regress, making his choices, and suffering the consequences of his actions. It takes a gifted writer to create a character that we root for on page 48, wish dead on page 332, and then sympathize with at the very end of the story, regardless of the dark acts they’ve committed. Haven’t we all been driven to the point of snapping, lashed out in a moment of weakness, and regretted it later? We don’t have to have bodies buried in the back yard to understand the pain and suffering of the world, to see that it doesn’t take that many steps into the darkness before the light fades away forever. There is indeed a point of no return, but for many characters in this novel, that threshold isn’t crossed—there are lessons to be learned.
Take this moment about Sarah, a nurse that briefly dates Wyatt, which summarizes the duality of this novel, and his character:
“He did nothing wrong and she has abandoned him.
He did something wrong—terribly wrong—and she was foolish enough to fall for him.”
In the end, we are given wisdom from the grave, as we witness the final actions of several of the protagonists in this tale. They show us what not to do, what to avoid, the senseless acts they commit adding up to bulging sack of nothing. But we are also shown that people can change, as Susanna remembers her sister, and vows to move on and live her life, no longer in the shadows of her oppressors. We are left with children that step outside their comfort zones and help one another, wounded, but not silenced, many days still left ahead where they have the chance to grow and thrive. The truth is eternal, even if it is malleable. Susanna speaking:
“Ronnie, in the woods. A found thing, a discarded thing. There is a truth here, a terrible truth that Susanna wants to walk away from, leave buried, and it occurs to her that this is why she left home, left Dale. Not to find a cop and get answers. Not to tell her mother. So that she can hide from this truth awhile longer.”
Holly Goddard Jones has written a layered, compassionate and haunting story in The Next Time You See Me. It is a story that leaves us with a powerful message, one that Ronnie tried to tell herself—and that her sister tried to avoid. We are not guaranteed our tomorrows—do not tell yourself you are entitled, for the next time you see me, we may not get that chance to laugh, to take that picture, to reminisce, or patch up those seeping wounds. The next time you see me I may be six feet under, lost to the world, never to be whole or connected or loved again. So live your best life now, while you still can.