Missing in action

6 months ago 82

It is 1951, and a frozen river separates the American soldiers from their Korean enemies. In the bald moonlight, Jacob Hampton, a young private from North Carolina tasked with keeping watch, comes face to face with an assassin. The men grapple on the breaking ice, and only the thought of Jacob’s wife back home, and their baby on the way, gives him the strength to survive. The Korean falls through the ice and the grievously wounded Jacob limps to safety.

The opening to Ron Rash’s eighth novel, The Caretaker, is thrilling, but it is back in Jacob’s Southern home town that the real action will transpire. This is a small place, as quaint as a town on a Hollywood backlot, every business with a name like Watson’s Dress Shop and Lutz’s Shoe Store. As the son of the Hamptons, one of the town’s wealthiest families (they own Hampton’s Store), Jacob was expected to go to college, marry well and take over the family business. Instead he rejected their wealth and risked conscription by avoiding college. Worse still he met Naomi, a sixteen-year-old hotel maid, barely literate, but with “hair shiny black as fresh-broke coal”. They fell in love and got married; now she’s pregnant. Their love exploded the best-laid plans of the snobbish Hamptons and invited the disapproval of the gossips at Stuckey’s Café.

When the Hamptons learn that Jacob has been wounded, they see an opportunity to drive the lovers apart. His father doctors a telegram saying that Jacob has been killed in action, and delivers it to Naomi, who is staying with her father in the neighbouring state of Tennessee. Then the Hamptons tell their son, who has been discharged from the army, that Naomi died of complications from a miscarriage. To complete the scheme they must trick Blackburn Gant, the titular caretaker, who tends to the local cemetery, digging fresh graves and receiving deliveries from Greene’s Monuments and Dillard’s Flower Shop. With a face so disfigured by polio that the townsfolk say it “would scare off any ghosts”, Gant is a social outcast, harassed by the bullies who hang around Macgill’s Pool Hall. Jacob and Naomi are the only people who have ever shown him kindness. Now the Hamptons force him hastily to bury a coffin that he believes contains Naomi, and to erect a gravestone that reads “HAMPTON”, so that it can serve as the grave of either Jacob or Naomi – depending on who’s looking.

“Already the plan felt impossibly convoluted” to Jacob’s mother, and this tangled web is an awkward fit with Rash’s otherwise easy and understated style. The lengths to which the Hamptons go in order to steer the still-living lovers away from each other stretch credulity. They pay Naomi’s father to keep her from visiting Jacob’s so-called grave, then tell Jacob that Naomi’s father (who was also against the marriage) agreed to have her buried under the Hampton name on the condition that Jacob never attempt to contact the family, something that would surely arouse suspicion. Jacob’s mother is a comically poor liar, snapping at anyone who questions what’s going on and refusing to say which hospital Naomi died in. Considering the hostility the Hamptons showed the couple – the father once telling Naomi, outside Holder’s Soda Shop, that he hopes her baby dies — one would expect at least one of Jacob, Naomi or Gant not to take them at their word.

But even the most credulous and forgiving of readers will find a novel devoid of real tension and feeling. We know that Jacob’s grief for Naomi, and hers for him, is based on false assumptions, so, rather than experience it along with them, we patiently wait for the lovers to be freed from their delusions. Marched through this restitution plot, the reader is distracted from potential sources of genuine pathos. When Jacob was abroad, for instance, Gant cared for the pregnant Naomi and gained an affection for her that verged on love. Jacob discovers this later on, when both men are grieving for Naomi, but without a living person to complete the love triangle, they are competing over her memory, making the conflict abstract and inconsequential.

With the Hamptons’ lies “like a long line of boxcars on a steep grade”, it will be up to the caretaker to derail them. When he does, in a last-ditch effort to inject a moral dilemma into the story, Naomi’s father offers Gant an absurd bargain if only he’ll keep the whole thing secret. But the outcome is never in doubt. In this simplistic vision of small-town life, the outcast has a heart of gold, teenage love is true love and, like the goods on display at Weaver’s Hardware, everything finds its right place.

Michael LaPointe has written for the Atlantic and the New Yorker. His debut novel, The Creep, was published in 2021

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