by D.K. Smith
Published by Frederic C. Beil
272 pages, 2004
The Real Thing: A Mystery of Motives
Reviewed by Marilyn Abildskov
A yellow scarf drawn from a buttonhole. A tiny green frog plucked from a child's ear. A glass of pink, frothy sherbet thrown high into the air that lands in the hands of a woman not as spilled punch but a large silk gardenia. These are a few of the magic tricks that crop up in Nothing Disappears, D.K. Smith's absorbing debut novel that demonstrates the past won't stay past, no one ever dies, absence has presence and love is the real mystery -- a trick of timing as well as grace.
The novel opens just as Charles returns to his small Connecticut town after a seven-year absence during which he has tried -- unsuccessfully, of course -- to make his past disappear, specifically the part obsessed by the death of his childhood friend, Gracie. Most folks think Gracie died at 15 in a tragic house fire, but Charles sees the "accident" as something else entirely, holding his brother Kevin -- and himself -- responsible. And so begins one strand of the novel's intricate plot, which moves between past and present and involves the town, a factory and a polluted river as well as a complex web of personalities with various political and personal motives.
At the center are two brothers who appear opposite: Kevin, the slick, successful and ever-certain young mayor, a man with ambitious plans to revitalize his decaying hometown; and Charles, the younger brother and a screw-up by contrast, the one who, after Gracie's death, left town without a word, wandering the Northwest with an old duffer named Rudy, performing and perfecting magic tricks. What the brothers shared in their youth -- Gracie -- gets repeated years later when Charles returns and finds himself drawn to Kevin's fiancée, Emily, a passionate environmental activist who is as idealistic as Kevin is politically shrewd.
Part love story, part thriller, Nothing Disappears traces those pale filaments of desire and denial running through Charles, those thin threads of poison that in all of us, detected or not, can kill. "The truth, like everything crucial, like magic, like love, is a balance of disguise and revelation," Charles says. "A fragile equation that depends as often as not on hiding all that is most important."
The same might be said of Nothing Disappears, which shrouds then reveals layers of meaning in a series of breathless moments, commenting on the ruination of the environment without giving into tired polemic; embracing a sensuous plot while avoiding the thick slog of sentimentality; and giving life to the mystery and complications of its characters' motives while still maintaining a quick and appealing page-turner pace.
"Among magicians," Charles says, "where deception is everything, there's an easy rule of thumb: if it makes a difference when it disappears, then it's real."
When the novel ends, that's a sentiment the reader will understand. | March 2004
Marilyn Abildskov lives in Berkeley and teaches creative writing at Saint Mary's College of California. Her first book, The Men in My Country, will be published fall 2004.