Adam Mansbach 2008

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You Remind Me of Me
by Dan Chaon
Ballantine Books/356 pages

With his debut novel, You Remind Me of Me, Dan Chaon trudges further into the bleak, arresting territory previously explored in his two collections of short stories: a small-town America peopled with lonely, eminently recognizable souls alternately fleeing and pursuing their pasts as they struggle to salvage lives sabotaged almost before they could begin.

In lean, intelligent prose that seldom draws attention to itself, You Remind Me of Me narrates, in alternating chapters, the converging lives of two half-brothers, Jonah Doyle and Troy Timmens -- the former raised by their depressive mother, Nora, and the latter given up for adoption at birth.

Chaon develops his four central characters – Nora, Jonah, Troy and Troy’s young son Loomis – at a carefully-calibrated pace: as languorous as the half-dead Midwestern towns in which they all grow up, but imbued with great emotional richness, and studded with moments of horror that spur the book powerfully forward.

Chronologically, the novel skips back and forth between several timelines, and often within those timelines as well; in the earliest string of chapters, we see the sixteen-year-old Nora check herself into the Mrs. Glass House, a home for unwed mothers, to give birth to Troy in 1966. Despite the urgings of her father (a kindly, distant figure who unfortunately remains somewhat out-of-focus, both in this context and in his later role as Jonah’s grandfather), she elects not to tell the baby’s father that she is pregnant. The loneliness of her ordeal, the loss of prospects that the pregnancy brings, and the forfeit of her first child prove to be psychic obstacles that Nora will never overcome; one of Jonah’s most enduring memories, and one of the novel’s most haunting moments, is the bitter joke Nora creates out of her loss: Oh, look, she says every time she spots an infant, for the rest of her life, there’s my baby.

Jonah, in turn, is raised in his grandfather’s house, under the cloud of his mother’s depression. An odd, sensitive child who never learns the identity of his own father, he grows up haunted by the absence of his half-brother, speculating on what might have been had Nora not given Troy away – or had she allowed Jonah, too, a chance at a better life elsewhere. At the age of six, Jonah barely survives a mauling by his mother’s dog; he is left with severe facial scars that serve to further alienate the already-withdrawn boy from the world.

Meanwhile, twenty-three years in the future, the novel’s catalyzing event unfolds: another traumatic incident involving a six-year-old boy. Loomis – a severe, pint-sized intellectual who bears a strong resemblance to his uncle Jonah – disappears from his grandmother’s backyard without a trace.

As it turns out, Loomis’s father, Troy, has not led the charmed existence imagined by his lost biological family. Rather, in his own way, he too has been doomed by the early circumstances of his life. By the age of ten, his adoptive parents’ marital problems have driven him to seek refuge in the home of his drug-dealing older cousin, Bruce. There, as Bruce and his wife become increasingly well-acquainted with cocaine, Troy looks after their two-year-old son, Ray, meets his future wife Carla, and is slowly indoctrinated into drug culture.

You Remind Me of Me reopens on the half-brothers in the mid-nineties. We find Troy divorced from Carla (another of the book’s shadowy presences, she’s become a junkie and disappeared before we ever really got to know her), tending bar at the town dive and serving out a year’s house arrest after being busted at his long-time, low-level sideline of peddling weed and ‘shrooms to the locals. The worst part of all this is that Loomis has been taken from him, and placed under the supervision of Carla’s retired-schoolteacher mother; the woman has long detested Troy, and thus the father has no access to his son.

Jonah, on the other hand, after waiting patiently for Nora to finish the slow process of killing herself, has taken his meager inheritance and moved to Chicago – dumping his mother’s ashes by the roadside along the way, in a brilliantly discomforting scene. In the big city, he takes a job as a short-order cook and tries, with little luck, to figure out just who he is. Well-meaning but damaged, Jonah finds himself building his tenuous relationships on a foundation of lies: he invents a dead brother, a pregnant wife who died in a car crash, the barest outlines of a life.

Jonah also hires an investigator to track down the only remaining link to his real past, and as soon as he gets his hands on Troy’s name and whereabouts, Jonah relocates and begins insinuating himself into Troy’s life, getting himself a job at the bar and doing his best to establish a friendship with his stressed-out half-brother.

Months pass before Jonah can bring himself to tell Troy the truth of their relationship, and even then he continues to lie about his own past – the dead wife is joined by a dead father, and even Nora takes on a certain luster, even as we continue to learn, in alternate chapters, just how hopeless and miserable her life actually was.

As the two characters’ trajectories merge, and we move chronologically closer to the date of Loomis’s disappearance – introduced early in the novel and revisited periodically, with increasingly urgency - You Remind Me of Me gathers momentum, and complexity. Chaon does a masterful job of keeping our sympathy for Jonah alive; despite his myriad deceptions, Jonah has opened up a part of Troy that has been shut down for years, and watching the two of them struggle to know each other is a subtle drama at least as compelling as the mystery of Loomis’s disappearance. Equally admirable is the way You Remind Me of Me allows hope to warm the blighted landscape of its characters’ lives; for all its tragedy and grit, this is a book that celebrates humanity by granting it, fully and without compromises, to its characters.

Adam Mansbach’s second novel, Angry Black White Boy, will be published by the Crown Publishing Group in January 2005.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing