After a young man loses his little brother, he searches for him desperately while working as a stocker at a grocery store.
This nasty little slice of Southern gothic is Auerbach’s (Penpal, 2012) second novel, following his popular Reddit-fueled, self-published debut. This time, he lands at Doubleday’s horror-heavy Blumhouse Books imprint. A prologue finds Ben and his 3-year-old brother, Eric, in a grocery store in a desolate stretch of North Florida—and just as surely as he was there, Eric disappears. Five years later, Ben is a wreck, a heavy, slow adolescent who’s partially lame from a childhood accident. His father is largely absent, and his stepmother is crippled by grief. Out of desperation, Ben gets a job as a stocker at the very store where his brother vanished. What follows is a heady, puzzling, and oddly gripping exercise in depicting a small town as a macabre place filled with everyday horrors ranging from a child’s stuffed animal to a gruesome industrial accident. Ben is under the thumb of the shop’s cruel manager, Bill Palmer. He also has co-workers, a strange cast that includes his buddies Marty and Frank, the bakery’s misanthrope, Miss Beverly, and a cashier named Chelsea. Also keeping one eye on Ben is local policeman James Duchaine, whose motivations are hard to discern. Through it all, Ben remains buoyed by hope, about which Auerbach writes: “It doesn’t fix anything. It just numbs and reassures, until it can consume the desperate for the sake of its own brilliant incandescence. And as hope comforts us, it becomes easier and easier to forget that it too was in the jar that Pandora carried. It’s the one horror of the world that wasn’t loosed when she opened the lid. It’s the one horror that lives in us.”
An unreliable protagonist and a nebulous finale may put some off, but credit Auerbach for keeping readers on the edges of their seats for the whole ride.