Posted on May 1, 2022
”Strange but True” belongs to the That Terrible Night storytelling genre. It begins with the memory of a calamity, but the author, John Searles, is determined to keep the details shrouded in mystery. What happened at the senior prom in Radnor, Pa., in 1999? Why did a boy named Ronnie Chase die that night? And why, years later, is his prom date apparently pregnant with his baby?
Fortunately for Mr. Searles the appeal of this novel (his second, after ”Boy Still Missing”) does not depend on the direct answers to those questions. He has the plotting skills to tease an elaborate story out of that basic setup, but his ability to engage goes beyond that. His book creates and then unravels characters the reader would like to know better.
These people are deliberately sketchy at the point where Mr. All we know is that the household consists of Charlene, Ronnie’s embittered mother, and Philip, her other son. We know that Philip recently returned to Radnor after living in New York, and that he is badly banged up: there’s a cast on his leg and a cut on his throat. Philip likes to read Anne Sexton’s poetry. This only heightens this story’s doomy intimations. ”When she got pregnant, it really screwed with her head,” Philip tells the mother to be.
”Ronnie communicated with me from the dead,” Melissa explains to Ronnie’s mother and brother. Naturally Philip is quick to wonder about what Ronnie can possibly have to do with Melissa’s pregnancy. ”What does she expect us to believe, that she has the womb of a sea turtle?” he asks, regarding the prospect of an impossibly long gestation period — or a miracle.
From this central encounter Mr. Searles begins expanding his story and filling in the blanks. He flashes back to the prom itself. He flashes forward to Melissa’s ruined corsage, which she keeps in her freezer as if it were a frozen heart. He locates the place where Melissa has been living, and then reveals that she will now be evicted, for reasons that make the story even more sinister and complex. His chain-of-events approach to narrative is so linear that one missing sock in a laundry basket can lead, step by inexorable step, to the revelation of old secret crimes. And then it leads to new ones.
The author’s omniscience (”You know what’s coming next, but you don’t know all of it,” he writes at one point) is used to intriguing effect, especially in the book’s early stages. Information has been shuffled and withheld in ways that coax this novel along. As in the documentary ”Capturing the Friedmans,” personal histories that seem to make sense are powerfully altered each time a disturbing new fact emerges. The letter evicting Melissa is itself the key to a world of trouble.
But the real test of any story with this structure is to imagine it told straightforwardly, chronologically, without benefit of any synthetic secrets. In the case of ”Strange but True” it’s the flashback material — the prom and its deadly aftermath — that packs the wallop. After that, Mr. Searles leads the book into more predictable forms of suspense. Not one but two characters are attacked with shovels.
The book also plants so much of the story’s villainy in one place that its malaise (involving symbolic visits by dark sinister birds and a mynah trained to say, ”Make me a martini”) is too heavily freighted to be free-floating. Readable as it is, ”Strange but True” winds up piling a weighty oversupply of guilt, anger and wickedness onto the prom-night drama.
Searles begins: the moment when Melissa, the pregnant prom date, rings the doorbell at the Chase household
Against all odds this tale has a light, eccentric aspect. It’s the kind of book in which a man (Ronnie and Philip’s father) has married Holly, the stand-up comedian he met at a medical convention, and Holly has answered the casting call for ”a pretty, fresh-faced girl with a filthy mouth.” It’s a book in payday loans UT which Charlene makes it her business to hate certain celebrities, and Philip attends poetry classes that are rife with bad-poet humor. Philip’s New York baby-sitting adventure with a snake and bird named Sweetie and Baby, owned by a man who plays Judy Garland records as background music, is far more whimsy than the traffic can bear.
Charlene is furious, Philip merely dubious: he believes that anyone who makes contact with a ghost ought at least to fact-check enough to ask for the ghost’s Social Security number
Mr. Searles ends on a camera-ready note of furious action and redemption, a note that could not have less to do with the way his story begins. His book ultimately seems calculating and arbitrary: that is its weakness. But you’ll race right through it anyway, and that’s its strength.