Heim returns from 10-year absence with a tale of obsession, addiction
After "Mysterious Skin," his first novel, debuted to rapturous reviews, Scott Heim was hailed as one of the Next Big Talents. His follow-up novel, "In Awe," came out two years later, to positive-but-puzzled reviews. Was Heim deliberately sticking to his David Lynchian vision of Kansas, or was this inadvertent recycling by a one-hit-wonder? The publisher didn’t market "In Awe" very strongly, and it soon disappeared. So, it seemed, did Scott Heim.
Eleven years after that sophomore slump, Heim has returned: older, somewhat wiser, certainly wearier, and bearing the scars of a trying decade. Writer’s block blossomed into depression, which was made worse by his addiction to crystal meth. And by the time he freed himself from that, he learned that his mother was dying of cancer.
He returned to Kansas to help as best he could. Eventually, this traumatic event, coupled with the positive reception of Gregg Araki’s film adaptation of "Mysterious Skin," helped Heim get his writing groove back, and he re-examined a manuscript begun years ago but repeatedly put aside.
What started out as a straightforward ghost/horror story, transmuted into a meditation on truth, memory and identity, covered with a veneer of autobiographical details, making the reader wonder how much is real and how much is imagined.
Scott, the protagonist of "We Disappear," works in a dead-end job in New York City for a textbook publisher — just as Heim did. A meth addict, he now has no friends outside of his dealer. "It used to feel terrific," he muses. "Now it’s not so terrific anymore. But being high is better than not being high."
When Scott gets a call informing him that his mother Donna’s cancer has gotten worse, he returns home to rural Kansas.
There, he finds that one of his mother’s old obsessions — attempting to find out as much as she can about local missing and abducted children — has returned with a vengeance. More worryingly, Donna now insists that she was kidnapped as a child, but she never tells the same version of these events twice. Is she telling the truth, is this a delusion caused by her medications, or a combination of both? Despite trying to go cold turkey, Scott vows to find the truth — or as much of it as he can — before his mother dies.
Heim also adeptly uses the theme of disappearance as a constant motif throughout the novel. Not only are there the literal disappearances of children, but the metaphorical disappearances of Scott and Donna, consumed from within by drugs and disease, respectively.
And once again, Heim transports us to a Kansas that is anything but a gateway to a Technicolor realm of witches and talking creatures. This is a Kansas where children vanish, never to be seen alive again. Charred fields break up the monotony of ditches and rolling meadows. An unknown figure leaves carefully stacked piles of candy bars on the porch. A teenage boy, found bound and gagged in Donna’s basement, may or may not be a figment of Scott’s addled imagination. This veneer of giddy uncertainty is one of the novel’s strengths.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 16, 2008.