It’s very appropriate that this debut novel was inspired in part by a Sufjan Stevens song, as this story has the same melancholy and bittersweet tone of that indie bard’s music. Cullen Witter is a suspicious, sarcastic seventeen-year-old who works at a gas station, fills his journal with the titles of books he might write (“Book Title #73: You May Feel a Slight Sting”) and hopes to someday leave his hometown of Lily, which “was like Arkansas’s version of a black hole; nothing could escape it.” He’s suffering from unrequited love for a girl who’s already taken and a deep-seated annoyance with the fact that all his neighbors have become bird crazy over a woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, that was sighted near the town river. One of the only people Cullen really likes is his younger brother Gabriel, who disappears without a trace one summer day. Once Cullen loses the compass of his brother, the only things that keep him from a quick downward spiral into anger and depression are his best friend Lucas’s bad jokes and a brief affair with a married woman. He tries to have hope that Gabriel will be returned safely while resenting the fact that everyone seems to be more interested in finding the bird than in finding his beloved brother. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, an eighteen-year-old missionary named Benton Sage decides that spreading the Good Word is no longer for him, and returns home to his father’s great disappointment and rage. Benton trades his Bible for a textbook and enrolls in college, but his father still can’t forgive him. Unable to deal with his father’s disappointment, Benton commits a shocking act, setting into motion a series of events that eventually lead to Gabriel’s disappearance and Cullen’s unexpected redemption. This strange, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink story shouldn’t necessarily work, but it does, bringing to mind aspects from one of my favorite books and one of my favorite movies. The connections between Cullen and Benton, which seem tenuous at first, end up coalescing in a way that illustrates just how much of our lives are dependent on chance and the kindness of strangers. Weird, wonderful and rare, this unusual book is just as unique as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker mentioned in its pages.
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley