River song

A lyrical turn in the South
By CLEA SIMON  |  May 13, 2009

MISSISSIPPI PILOT: Gautreaux's prose is as rich as the land he writes about.

The Missing | By Tim Gautreaux | Alfred A. Knopf | 384 pages | $25.95
Tim Gautreaux writes of a South that never changes. Dense, humid, with a fecundity that is more than a match for any human development, his South is largely a no man's land where the trees close off the sky, their roots rise "from the soppy mud like stalagmites," and the calm is broken only by the "stout windings of water moccasins." Through it all runs the Mississippi, which may connect cities and settlements but is never tamed.

This "hardwood-haunted dimness" is primordial. Timeless. But for the people of The Missing, Gautreaux's third novel, a new age is dawning. World War I has just ended as a troop ship of soldiers arrives, and that's earned one young soldier the nickname "Chanceaux" ("Lucky"). Plagued by the Cajun French accent he's tried to shed, Sam Simoneaux accepts the moniker with a grain of salt. He's already lost one child to fever, and a careless act has led to his maiming a young French girl. He's stuck cleaning up ordinance in the hell of a very different no man's land, but he looks forward to returning to his wife in New Orleans, where he works as a floorwalker in a Canal Street department store. It's the kind of job he dreamed of while sweating on his uncle's South Louisiana farm. But he loses it when a moment's distraction results in the abduction of yet another little girl from the store. And he doesn't need his wife, his boss, or the girl's musician parents to assign responsibility.

Hoping to find the girl — and reclaim his job — Simoneaux joins the her family on a riverboat, working as third mate, a combination bouncer and fill-in pianist on the dance cruises that offer a "breezy bubble of comfort and music" from New Orleans up to Cincinnati. It's a hard life, and he begins to understand why someone would steal away a precocious child who was learning to sing with the band. But the tragedies of his own past propel him to pit his faith and strength against both the amoral backwoods clan who may have killed his own parents and the spoiled wealthy townsfolk who think they can buy anything.

Gautreaux's language is as rich as the land he writes about, and he conveys a sense of the wild new jazz music as well as the ageless swamp. "Upstairs, the band members were running with sweat, thumping out a shimmy number as five hundred dancers stepped and turned in a massive wink of patent leather and sequins, silk ties and hair oil. . . . " But the riverboat is as fragile as the rest of Simoneaux's life; a stray spark or a miscalculation on the part of the aging pilot could break the whole thing into matchsticks, and Gautreaux shows that, too. Tragedies happen in a moment. Lives change, and the world — the mud, the river, the random violence of strangers — eats them up.

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  Topics: Books , Book Reviews, World War I, The South
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