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Review: Have You Seen Me?

Have You Seen Me? Katherine Scott Nelson; published by Chicago Center for Literature and Photography; 2011; Price: $20.00 (cotton sheets), $15.00 (recycled sheets), pay what you want (electronic).

Review by Kent McDaniel

Have You Seen Me? Tells the story of Chris, a gay teenage boy growing up in Springhill, Nebraska, a small town gone to seed. At summer’s start, the police come to question him about the disappearance of his best friend, Vyv, a Goth girl and a cutter who’s run away from home. 

He tells the cops he knows nothing about it, and he hopes they believe him. He has enough problems already: A gay teen in the rural Midwest, Chris also has unemployed parents, whose  unemployment checks are about to stop. His mother is managing to cope, but his father is clinically depressed and when not lying in bed, makes one birdhouse after another in the backyard. Chris’s grandfather, a WWII fighter pilot and Chris’s childhood hero, has developed dementia. Secretly Chris is exchanging emails with Vyv, using a computer at the town library. 

Chris lucks into a summer job with Albert, a stranger in Springhill, with whom Vyv had been intrigued. A loner, Albert has inherited a small farm. Working there not only gives Chris cash, it lets him discover that Albert is a back to nature anarchist and junk collector, who’s writing a book about his philosophy. Dolls heads and a gorilla mask are impaled on the fence posts around Albert’s place. Pit traps and snares lie all around the farm to ward off intruders. Albert hunts game with a homemade bow and arrow, dreams of bombing dams, and grows pot in the woods. 

If all of this sounds good, it is. But the novella Nelson weaves around it falls short of its potential.

If all of this sounds good, it is. But the novella Nelson weaves around it falls short of its potential. These characters—the gay small town teen, Goth cutter girl, demented grandpa, etbcetera—can all descend easily into stereotype. Nelson comes close to making them three-dimensional at times, but the characters never quite live and breathe, in large part because Have You Seen Me? is told in summary, with few actual scenes. We hear of the characters’ words and actions only second hand. 

The small town setting is also never fully developed. In books like Look Homeward Angel and Winesberg, Ohio, a town emerges as almost another character, real and unique, but Springhill never quite manages that. The predominance of summary contributes to this, but Nelson doesn’t use what details she does include to great effect, either. Concerning Chris’s dad we read: “My dad, on the other hand, had been Clark Kent without Superman. I grew up watching him in his gray office at the newspaper, picking out spliced commas.” Is the gray office a one room affair or part of a large suite? Was it in a store front on the town square, in some strip mall, or in some office building? And what was the name of the newspaper? Such details would’ve given a better sense of the office and of the father and the town, and I wish Nelson had provided more of them throughout. 

The novella also has plotting issues. In a subplot, Chirs’s grandpa veers into someone’s front yard, knocks over the mailbox and fence, and when the owner emerges, threatens him with a tire iron. He has to go to a hearing about the incident, and Chris and his mom go along. Their breakfast together and ride to the hearing are summarized in detail. At the courtroom, however, the narration stops with grandpa shuffling up to stand before the judge. We never learn what the judge ruled or how Grandpa might have responded. Aside from obvious questions having been left unanswered, this is a missed opportunity to characterize Grandpa—and Chris. Then much later, we’re told almost offhandedly that Grandpa died. 

Another problem is that little seems to be at stake. Chris is conflicted about Vyv’s running away. He doubts her move was wise, becomes increasingly worried about her, and wonders if he should tell her parents where she is. Also, Chris has to deal with the problems within his family and his discomfort with his sexual orientation and environment, but things never seem to reach a crisis. Chris comes across as a remarkably stable and mature adolescent, handling all this well. Little is at risk in the subplot involving Albert, either. No real problems with the work arise, or with the authorities, or with Albert’s neighbors. About the only conflicts involves some disagreements over Alfred’s philosophy. 

Finally, toward the ending several quasi-revelations arise, not actually revelations to Chris, only for the reader. For example, a few times, earlier in the story, the name Sonia was mentioned in passing. Near the end, we learn that she’s dead, that Chris had met her at a party and flirted with her. Afterward the same night, Vyv had told Chris that Sonia was once gang-raped. Chris was fascinated by Sonia and perhaps attracted to her, but sometime after the party, Sonia committed suicide. As a revelation, its impact is blunted; Chris already knew it and just never told us. It does tell us who the mysterious Sonia was, but why do we learn only near the end? Would none of this this ever have crossed Chris’s mind? A similar revelation of sorts comes later: The night Vyv ran away, she disguised herself as Sonia and carried Sonia’s drivers license. Further, on that night, Chris and Vyv made love. (For a gay, Chris seems almost straight. We never see him seriously attracted to anyone but Sonia and Vyv.) 

Revealing their lovemaking earlier might have raised the stakes, and another development near the end could have also, if introduced earlier. Chris comes to suspect that Vyv’s stepfather might have been sexually abusing her and that Vyv had tried to tell Chris in various indirect ways. We never know if this is true, but if it were, that would certainly have upped the ante. 

Finally, just before the end, Chris says: “I didn’t understand back then. I wouldn’t until years later, when Vyv’s temp job would take her past the black smoking hole of the World Trade Center every day…” So the novella took place some years before 2,001? This came as a revelation to me. The only period clue I was able find, reviewing the story, was mention of going to see Fight Club. More period clues would’ve avoided the reader’s feeling any sense of having misunderstood the time frame and would have enriched the setting as well. 

I wanted to like Have You Seen Me? more than I did.

I wanted to like Have You Seen Me? more than I did. Nelson writes clear, well-crafted sentences, and her ear for dialog is very good. The characters and setting had great promise; I’d love to have read a book that brought them to life. I’d loved to have seen them in a story with clearly defined high stakes, no obvious questions left unanswered, and no information withheld for artificial revelations. It’d be a wonderful story.

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