Tim Gautreaux's new novel, The Missing, just landed and it's surely one of the year's best surprises — a lively, old-style river yarn set on the Mighty Mississippi, a story as dark and twisting as the river itself. Sure, we've enjoyed the Louisiana author's work for years, (especially his lumberjack novel, The Clearing) but this new work may be his best yet.
The novel's complicated hero is Sam Simoneaux, who has returned from France after World War I. Random tragedy has followed him all his life, but he finally catches a break when he finds work as a floorwalker in a prominent New Orleans department store. His short-lived comfort ends when a young girl is kidnapped on his watch.
Fired from his job and still unsettled by his past, Sam avails himself to the young girl's parents, a musical couple who perform on an excursion steamer. Resourceful, and desperate to quell his own demons, Sam vows to help find the girl, so he joins the ship's crew as they travel up the Mississippi, stopping in port cities and taking on passengers for night cruises filled with dining and dancing. Along the way he engages in amateur sleuthing, establishing allies and following leads up and down the river.
The story often feels like a classic mystery but never becomes bogged down in formula. Gautreaux balances the action with rich characters and river culture, from steamboating and excursion life to rugged riverbank hijinks. As Sam pieces together the whereabouts of the young girl, the travelers encounter a host of tragedies and prickly characters that make this a mesmerizing journey.
After reading an early copy of The Missing, we sent Mr. Gautreaux our high praise, and he paid us a visit last Thursday while traveling north on book tour. He graciously signed our mound of books as we asked him about the excursion steamer trade, which was popular from the 1890s until World War II, a trade that has been all but forgotten. (It's modern day incarnation must be the music cruises which have become popular in recent years.) While largely an activity of the civilized class, things could get rowdy when the ship pulled into a backwoods blue collar river town. (The imagined mayhem comprises some of the most memorable scenes in The Missing.) Perhaps the greatest legacy of this steamboat trade was the widespread dissemination of jazz music. The radio stations weren't playing it, record companies weren't recording it, but the music crept out of New Orleans aboard these dance boats.
Mr. Gautreaux went on to lament how much river history has been lost. What's left exists only in the few sparse museums along the Mississippi. Even the boats and equipment from the era have been destroyed rather than preserved. We asked him if writing this novel was his way of preserving a bit of that history and he agreed but said mainly he wrote novels as a way to express his obsessions. Coming from a clan of machinists and tinkerers, he maintains a fascination for all things mechanical.
Finally, we brought to Mr. Gautreaux's attention the burgeoning school of timber lit and were honored to have introduced him to this literary tradition, even though The Clearing sits firmly entrenched amid the genre's great works. Aside from the recent novel Serena, he could recall no other novel set in the world of lumberjacks. In fact, he thought it surprising that there were not more lumberjack novels, seeing as how most of America was one big forest and was clear cut before settled. It's a significant experience in every American region, though it remains, like riverboat culture, largely forgotten by Americans today.
The Missing provides a chance to catch up on some of that history through a well-told story. It seems to be one of the rare, wonderful novels that succeeds as a portrait of an historical era and brilliant entertainment.