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Of the many extremes among novels, two stand out: Your Tristram Shandys, where the aim is hilarity, and your Ethan Fromes, which shouldn’t be read without a bottle of something, preferably Lexapro. Philip Stephens’ Miss Me When I’m Gone fits squarely in the second category. It is a skillfully wrought narrative about two wretchedly unhappy people, and the minor characters aren’t exactly jovial either. It’s hard to think of a single figure in this book for whom things work out well.
“Their musicianship was ragged,” Stephens writes at one point, “a frayed remnant of an American past where drinking and death, God and gore, cocaine and cohabitation, murder, mayhem and malice were the norm.” They’re the norm here in this novel, too, as things go from bad to worse for the two protagonists, who have both returned to the Ozarks to settle with their pasts—one, the street fiddler Cyrus Harper to bury his mother, the other, parole violator Maggie Bowman, to kidnap her daughter from her ex-inlaws. Along the way, we encounter the rebarbative, drug-dealing sleazo Gerald, living in a half-burned-down crack house; the homeless mute boy with his plangent interior monologues; and denizens of a local strip joint, all through a miasma of near psychotic depression that mixes with mass murder, homelessness, the penury of a street performer, minatory hallucinations, a missing sister, an encyclopedic compendium of minutiae about old American music, and lots of despondent musings on memory and the irrevocable claims of the past, all simmering in a melancholy gallimaufry of despair.
But above all, there are Cyrus’ broken-hearted wonderings about his sister and fellow musician Saro, who vanished years before. Here Stephens deftly reveals how those left behind and without closure can never stop waiting for the disappeared to return. The persistence of Cyrus’ loss permeates how he lives each day. “She went full speed until she hit something,” Cyrus’ old flame says of Saro, “and left you all treading water.” Later she remarks: “You’re afraid to move on from old troubles and get to the new ones.” Or, as the hired hand Jorge asks about the convergence of music and memory, “who wants to sing when a song only makes us mourn what is lost?”
Miss Me When I’m Gone exposes how the past intrudes on the present and destroys the future. Memory offers no solace; on the contrary, it is a torture, while the vanished worlds of old music threaten to drown listeners and players in a grating, injurious nostalgia: “Quavers, falsettos, fifths, thirds, harmonies, trills and double stops from centuries ago hinted to him of some lost place where tunes were dippered cold from a bucket and passed from singer to singer until the dipper was dry and the bucket hauled away.” There is no salve for Cyrus’ and Maggie’s wounds, which Stephens has articulated with a lyricism that swirls down into an abyss of misery.