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The Story of My Disappearance by Paul Watkins
Although The Story of My Disappearance is Paul Watkins' sixth novel, he is still regarded in America as a newish author, one difficult for Americans to categorize and one who therefore rests on the fringe of commercial fiction without receiving the full attention due his talent. The confusion about Paul Watkins' place among his peers stems from the fact that he doesn't seem to have any; the closest in style--and the most frequently cited--is Ernest Hemingway. The two share a directness of style and intent. The issues both writers touch upon seem more instinctual than constructed, and you leave their novels feeling as if you've been grazed by a bullet--the full force behind which comes in retrospect. Watkins' latest novel serves as a perfect example.
Disappearance takes place in a small, New England fishing village. This is, in fact, the setting I had eagerly hoped Watkins would return to after being mesmerized by his last trip there in Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn. The difference is that The Story of My Disappearance throws its net over deeper waters, and over several genres, in harvesting its many themes. The book is so compact, that after one has read it, pieces will later resurface and wash into consciousness, like the wreckage following a typhoon. It is so dense that I have difficulty even summarizing the plot, because, simply put, The Story of My Disappearance is a fishing novel, a war novel, a love story, a murder mystery, a novel of identities covered, discovered, and assembled from scrap. All this in 188 pages.
Despite its short length, the book has enough material for several novels. An author less intense, less meticulous--but perhaps more commercially minded--could have easily made a series from such material. But the attraction of Watkins' novel is that it can be appreciated from all sides, like a jewel. Watkins appropriates enough of the furniture of a suspense novel to deserve a walk-through by fans of that fold. (He's got a submarine, the Russian-Afghan war, and even a fat man with luggage full of cash.) I dare say that even those of us who occasionally thump the rusty hulls of Tom Clancy novels listening for echoes of life within will find in Watkins something rare and terrific. A sort of Patriot Games for the Rest of Us--a novel that won't tell you what type of rifle the Afghanistan Army prefers, but one that will have you believing that there are people on the other end of the Russian radio.
Because Watkins is so good at showing just how fleshy and permeable his people are, he often starts his novels with a heavy dose of violence. Much of the remaining novel is like reconstructive surgery, reassembling the body of preceding events to make some sense of those early scenes. Archangel, for example, opens on Jonah Mackenzie, the fictive lumber magnate of Maine, pinning himself under a tree. To be free he must sever the leg, and we are with him as he does. We learn later that Mackenzie is as despicable as lumber magnates come, so despite his sincere repentance at novel's end, we already have that itch at the back of our heads knowing that losing the leg will soon be the least of his worries.
Similarly, Disappearance opens with a kind of tale of a death foretold - or forewarned, at least: "It had been a long time since I'd seen a man killed," says the novel's narrator, Paul Wedekind. Paul and his audience are distracted for a few pages by the apparent end of his love affair taking place in the dockyard saloon, Bad Joe's, but Watkins brings us around to the inevitable death within the first ten pages. Another patron of the bar, Mudge - who has been swallowing lemoned oysters through Wedekind's opening exposition - is stabbed in the head with a metal spike. The dumbstruck Wedekind, it turns out, recognizes the exiting killer as someone he had thought long dead.
If that scenario seems dense and convoluted - characters introduced, forgotten, their lives abbreviated before they can be appreciated - you should consider Wedekind's history. His life, as he comes to tell it, has been nothing but the invention and reinvention of identity in response to the imposed commitments of his environment. First his engineering studies in his native Dresden are interrupted by his recruitment into the Stasi where he is induced to spy on a friend, Iago, a possible heroin dealer. The two serve under the Russian army in Afghanistan where Iago reigns as black marketeer and torturer until the two are captured. Iago is presumably tortured to death while Wedekind is released in an exchange of prisoners and through a circuitous route begins life anew in the United States where he meets love interest, Suleika, a Russian with her own secret life. For each step along the way, some part of Wedekind's understanding is divorced from him: his nationality, his family, his sense of knowing who he is.
Loss and confusion are reflected in the American psyche as well. There is a particular passage between Suleika and Paul in which Suleika's comments to him speak strongly about the state of America, where popular culture has somehow seeped into the framework of relevance; where the indulgence of nostalgia has become a national pastime. It's as if the common denominator of its citizens was not what they thought, but what they bought, where and when.
"You always look to the past," she tells Wedekind. "It's safer there. It's the place where everything gets to make sense, even when you know it didn't at the time. I envy you, the way you cast your thoughts. I'm the one who always ends up looking into the future and being dissatisfied with the present. Sometimes I see such huge gaps between the way that things could be and the way they probably will be that I can't stand to think about it."
Perhaps that's why Watkins has succeeded so well in this small novel: because while he does allude to an America--and a world--whose cynicism is so profound it is only believable in the murky, perhaps out-dated genre of the spy novel, he has infused his characters with enough history that you can't help but hope they will slough it all off and emerge reborn. In short, he has written a novel of Russian espionage that reads like an American bildungsroman.
There is so much going on in this novel, and in his work at large, that it is safe to say only this: that Paul Watkins does not belong in our time and he certainly does not belong in America. I say this knowing full well how much we need him. But Paul Watkins should be some place else, some place where the Internet doesn't exist, where cellular phones and the National Basketball Association and luxury cars do not exist. He should live in a place where people respect difficult labor and serious thought. He does not need the sad, simple distractions that satisfy most of us these days. He needs to be left alone. Paul Watkins needs to write more books.
Review by William Cuthbertson
_____________________© 1997 The Barcelona Review