A Natcher, Not Wry

John Searles' debut novel skirts Salinger territory.

BOY STILL MISSING by John Searles (William Morrow, $25)

JOHN SEARLES is living the American Dream—or one version of it, anyway. The one that says if you work hard enough, if you remember your pain and can express it with style and something resembling courage, that life will reward you.

Just over a decade ago, after his younger sister died from diabetes, a heartbroken Searles ditched his hard-won business major (he’d put himself through college in Connecticut), ignored the protestations of his working-class parents, and went to New York City to Become a Writer. Now, still in his early 30s, he’s the senior books editor at Cosmopolitan, and his first novel, a rueful coming-of-age reminiscence called Boy Still Missing, has the literary P.R. machine going full tilt. His debut has been trumpeted with words like “stunning,” grabbed a glitzy mention in Liz Smith’s column, and, of course, found someone willing to compare it to J.D. Salinger (in this case, it’s Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt getting all worked up). The book, it turns out, will have you admiring the faults of both its protagonist and his creator.

Dominick Pindle, to explain McCourt’s excitable comparison, is an alienated teenage boy. He’s appealing enough in his way, but hampered by his dead-end Massachusetts town in 1971—and by a crumbling America in 1971—that keeps him tied to his secretive mother and drunken, unfaithful father. This being a rueful coming-of-age reminiscence, it should come as no surprise that the 15-year-old becomes tragically involved with an older woman (in this case, Edie, his father’s delectable mistress) and falls in love with Jeanny, a worldly hippie his own age.

The novel’s greatest asset as it weaves together all these elements is also its albatross: Dominick’s, and the author’s, dewy humanity. Unlike (sorry) Holden Caulfield, what you remember about Dominick is not some idiosyncratic, guarded sense of humor (which he could use), but a distinctly universal compassion, leaning the proceedings a tad too heavily on the message-oriented side of things. Searles is best at portraying Dominick’s sensitivity, but by the time he’s kidnapped a baby and the story has ambitiously taken on not only what it means to be a loving man but the country’s shifting soul and a woman’s right to choose, this sensitivity consumes him: “I stood in the doorway blinking at the outside world like a creature just hatched from the darkness of this room. A baby bird with sticky feathers stunned by the blur of beauty and ugliness it had been born into.”

A GENUINE, quite graceful suspense moves the boy toward manhood and keeps the book from just lying there elegantly. Searles’ enviable adeptness at giving Dominick’s self-discovery a thriller’s momentum, however, also means that it has a thriller’s contrivances. The book doesn’t have the serendipitous pulse of real events so much as it has the more constructed, less affecting feel of something dramatically reaching for definitiveness. Dominick always seems to run into the right people at the right time, or the wrong people at the right time, leading up to the tidy, familiar assertion “. . . that one day you could make a choice that seemed like a good one in the moment, only to end up careening down a dark road you never intended to take.”

Boy Still Missing isn’t a great book, and it isn’t “stunning,” and it isn’t Salinger, and it shouldn’t have to be. It’s a good read, engrossing and deeply felt. This is a first novel, filled with the freshness and faux pas of every first novel—of every skilled first novel, anyway—and it’s a work that clearly means something to the man who made it. It has the heart of an outsider finding his way in, for Searles is coming into the world as surely as his hero.