In this haunting, bracing new collection, Dan Chaon shares stories of men, women, and children who live far outside the American Dream, while wondering which decision, which path, or which accident brought them to this place. Chaon mines the psychological landscape of his characters to dazzling effect. Each story radiates with sharp humor, mystery, wonder, and startling compassion. Among the Missing lingers in the mind through its subtle grace and power of language.
Dan Chaon opens his new collection of stories with an epigraph from Raymond Carver: "Whatever this was all about, it was not a vain attempt--journey." This is pretty opaque stuff from Carver, a writer not much given to mystification. But it strikes just the right note for Chaon's assembly of characters, a group vaguely unsettled by life, trying to make the best of it. First and foremost, this is a book beset by moms. You get the feeling that the characters in Among the Missing
never really had a chance to figure out the world, with these cryptic, uncommunicative women to care for them. In the title story, for example, a car is discovered at the bottom of a local lake, with an entire family drowned inside. The college-age narrator, however, is preoccupied by the more mundane puzzle of his parents' relationship. "Somehow," he recounts, "they'd stayed married for twenty years, and then, abruptly, somehow they'd decided to give up. It didn't quite make sense, and I looked at them, for a minute aware of the other mystery in my life. 'Do you want some soup?' my mother asked, as if I were a customer."
That's about as much as you'll ever get out of one of Chaon's mothers: soup. When not fielding their aging parents' passivity, these characters seem to spend a lot of time grappling with ghosts. The "missing" of the title story are, literally, gone. In "Safety Man," a widow comes to rely on one of those inflatable dolls meant to intimidate intruders. In "Prosthesis," a young wife and mother falls for a stranger with a missing arm; meanwhile, she watches her son grow up and away from her, "disappearing into his own thoughts and feelings." In the end, Chaon is the rare writer who deserves comparison to Carver: both write an affectless prose that takes on a surprisingly emotional life of its own. --Claire Dederer