Gwyn (stories: Dog on the Cross, 2004) pens a grim, suspenseful first novel about murder in a small town.
Thomas is only 15, yet he yearns for death. Both his parents are dead. His father, a Chickasaw, died in prison; his mother was Mexican. Thomas lives with his Spanish-speaking grandmother Nana, whom he loves fiercely, and his aunt. He has just one friend, Charles, a black kid from the ghetto. We are back in the dying town of Perser, Okla., the setting of Gwyn’s stories. Thomas’s feelings of isolation intensify at a Powwow where he learns of Shampe, a Native American boogeyman who lives underground but emerges to steal children; so says Enoch, a tribal elder, a folklorist and the wealthy owner of a drilling company. Thomas goes from being a straight-A student to a dropout working at the golf course, all because of Enoch’s words: “Go under.” Why would he give such advice? It’s a major disappointment that Gwyn allows Thomas and Enoch to fade without an explanation, before shifting attention to two white men, Sheriff Martin and Hickson. Martin is a decent guy who feels responsible for the death of his kid brother in a childhood accident and so takes Thomas’s subsequent disappearance personally. Hickson is a decorated veteran from the first Gulf War whose wife left him when he experienced PTSS. Later he got it together enough to become golf-course groundskeeper and Thomas’s boss. His own obsession with the underground begins when a perfectly round hole appears in his yard. Gwyn cobbles together some suspense around Thomas, Hickson and his neighbor Parks. There will be two murders and a climactic confrontation underground, naturally, but the strain connecting the lost teenager to the equally lost adults is evident; the concept of a magnetic force pulling them all down feels spurious.
The novel is not always coherent, but Gwyn’s taut prose commands readers’ attention.