Lost and found: Years after he disappeared, a child is restored to his family in this appealing debut.
Justin Campbell leaves home with his skateboard and vanishes into thin air. His family (parents Eric and Laura, grandfather Cecil, kid brother Griff) posts fliers of the 11-year-old in their hometown, Southport, and in the South Texas port city of Corpus Christi, an hour away. That was four years ago. The unresolved mystery has strained the cohesiveness of the Campbells. Eric, a history teacher, has begun an affair with a surgeon’s wife. Laura has devoted herself to the care of a sick dolphin at an animal rescue lab, while Griff has immersed himself in skateboarding. Deliverance comes when a vendor at a Corpus flea market realizes Justin is her customer. There is boundless joy as the family reunites, for Justin, though eerily calm, is seemingly unharmed. He’s been the captive of a man, Dwight Buford, in a Corpus neighborhood, with some license to roam. But of course Justin has been harmed, psychologically (sessions with a social worker ensue) and physically. Johnston doesn't specify the abuse; what interests him is that delicate organism, the nuclear family. The care with which he delineates the “abiding decency” of the Campbells is admirable. What Johnston overdoes is the need of these sweet people to chastise themselves; they're great parents, and Eric was only a halfhearted adulterer. Their interior monologues slow the momentum, and it takes a bombshell (the news that Buford is out on bail) to shake things up. The family threatens to unravel. Eric spends hours watching the Buford home; Laura withdraws into herself; and Griff’s relationship with his first girlfriend is at risk. A crisis erupts that is more manufactured than inevitable, shots are fired, and a body is pulled from the water (as foreshadowed in the prologue).
Johnston struggles to balance the family regrouping with the external threat, but his fine detail work augurs a bright future.