Where Things Come Back (2011), by John Corey Whaley

This review is… difficult. I borrowed this book from my friend Rob, whom you all know by now, after he posted about it on facebook, and his friends all raved about how wonderful it was. With all their positive comments—such as “Oh! My! God! Where Things Come Back!!!! I think I’m in love.” from someone I have never met—I had to read it to review for this blog, and asked to borrow it. Be careful what you ask for…

Rob dutifully lent me his signed copy (and not just “To Rob, John Corey Whaley,” but with a personal message because they know each other!) last time we met, and tonight we are going over for dinner and I have to return it. So I guess I had better write something. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a bad book: I just didn’t connect with it.  Here’s what happened as I see it…

To begin with, I think that everyone, regardless of how hard we might try to avoid it, is influenced by others’ opinions pre-reading. I recall, though, the pleasant anticipation of a fascinating, heartwarming reading experience, and was prepared to enjoy myself (and the book); indeed, there is ample reason for me to have done so. Where Things Come Back is very well written, with well-rounded, well-constructed characters, and interesting—if at times random—plot elements. The story is set in a small town in Arkansas, Lily by name, where initially things disappear… closure of a sort is achieved by the end, for the town Where Things Come Back.

The narrator, Cullen Witter (is this a nod to Twilight? I seriously hope—and think—not), introduces himself by telling us: “being seventeen and bored in a small town, I like to pretend sometimes that I am a pessimist” (5). But the truth that we are shown throughout his narration is that, as he says, he “can’t seem to keep that up for too long before [his] natural urge to idealize goes into effect” (5). This fluctuation between pessimism or sometimes downright despair and an unquenchable optimism is both honest and refreshing: we like Cullen, and we ride the emotional waves of his troubled adolescence with him, hoping—as he does continually—that his lost brother will come back, and life will return to normal in Lily.

The teens in Lily have their local mythologies, such as that dating Ada Taylor was tantamount to a suicide, as her two previous boyfriends had both died in accidents; that Russell Quitman, her current bully-boyfriend, while still breathing, would eventually succumb: another point of closure by the end. Cullen and his best friend Lucas are typical teenaged boys: interested in girls; uncertain of their futures but more concerned with their present; hanging out; being, well… adolescent boys. Cullen’s younger brother, Gabriel, on the other hand, is not typical in any way, and Cullen idolizes him. Their relationship sets the reader up for a misinterpretation of what follows, and this perhaps is what bothered me about the book… I am not sure if I felt that the author manipulates the reader, but if not, then what was the intent of the Gabriel-Benton-Alma-Cabot subplot?

This is what unfolds: the initial pages of the book are narrated by Cullen; the next section switches to Benton, an evangelical missionary set on Mission to Africa, who sees in a vision “a boy standing on the water with one hand, his left, held into the air … God’s voice introduced the boy to Benton. ‘This is the angel Gabriel’ … Just before the boy opened his mouth to speak, a large bird flew overhead and landed on the angel’s shoulder” (18). The reference is unmistakable, linking Gabriel, Benton, and the rediscovered Lazarus woodpecker, thought extinct but now claimed to have been seen in Lily only days before Gabriel Witter disappeared apparently into thin air… What is troubling about this set up is that Benton’s vision is transferred in some way to his college roommate, Cabot, who is the active agent in Gabriel’s disappearance. He studies the apocryphal Book of Enoch, following in Benton’s path, and ultimately comes to see Gabriel as an angel, although the vision was not his. His actions are motivated primarily by sexual jealousy. The religious overtones smack of psychosis, but why? And Benton’s initial vision could only have been real, in some sense, for he cannot have known about the Lazarus woodpecker, or Gabriel Witton, out there in the African village. So there is some motivation for Benton’s actions that are external to his psyche, motivations that seem to have been transferred to Cabot, but with no rationale for the transference. Ultimately, everything—everything—can be explained by rational means, and yet the author gives us visions and associations—including numerous comments by the people of Lily about how special Gabriel is or was—that suggest something more. If that is the point—that there is nothing more in our world—then I feel manipulated. If not, what connection am I missing? There is a suggestion of power in Lily, the town Where Things Come Back, but I could neither feel it through the characters’ understandings, nor rationalize it out of the narrative. So I am left wondering —as obviously others are not—despite the excellent writing, and despite the fabulous characters: what was the point?

It troubles me still… I think I will ask Rob to write a guest review, so you can have his side as well.