Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (2011)
Lily, Arkansas is a hopeless place full of sad people who tried to leave but failed. Cullen Witter, like a lot of people, wants desperately to get out of this stifling small town. The summer before his senior year in high school Cullen sees his first corpse. Then he sees the body of his cousin who overdosed on drugs. Later, after the corpses and the end of school, the entire town becomes obsessed with a woodpecker–long thought extinct–who may or may not be hiding in the woods around Lily. Stranger still, Cullen’s brilliant brother, Gabriel, disappears.
Chapters from Cullen’s first person narration are interspersed with third-person narratives from two unlikely missionaries. Other reviews will talk about these stories entwining in strange and surprising ways. They might also call this novel a mystery. I disagree with both statements.
Whaley’s debut novel was the winner of both the 2012 Printz Award and the 2012 Morris Award. While the prose is extremely literary, I contend there is very little mystery in this story. The narratives are not particularly shocking in the ways in which they overlap or the general story. Given the plot structure, the big reveal was ultimately predictable.
Where Things Come Back is about nothing so much as it is about waiting. The town is waiting for a woodpecker to return and change its fate. Cullen is waiting for his chance to get away and also for a simpler but much harder thing: the return of his missing brother. There are interesting ideas to be unpacked in this world of waiting–ideas that Whaley does examine in interesting ways.
Unfortunately that is never quite enough to make the story into a page-turner or anything more than a thoughtful, brief, meditation on the randomness of life.
Writerly prose can be found throughout the story which works in some instances to help Cullen develop a very unique voice. At the same time, it always feels like this novel is trying very hard to be thoughtful and contemplative in a way that feels forced.
Cullen’s mind wanders throughout the narrative as he goes off on tangents. While these flights of fancy are amusing (as Cullen imagines his town overrun by zombies and the like) they distract from the plot immensely. The structure reminded me so much of the “If you give a mouse a cookie” books that it became the only thing I could imagine as I read these imaginings. Worse, these elements added nothing to the story except to create a titillating ending that leaves a tiny bit of room for discussion.
By the end of the story, Where Things Come Back became a strange and arbitrary novel with a mildly interesting (and very open) ending.