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Triumph of characterization in nicely paced first novel

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Holly Goddard Jones broke onto the American literary scene in 2009 with a remarkably good collection of short stories called Girl Trouble. Her strength lay in her ability to create characters you cared strongly about, despite the flaws they might have.

Her first novel, The Next Time You See Me, is a more-than-worthy followup, a triumph of characterization in a nicely paced narrative that is part mystery, part depiction of small-town life in the Southern United States.

Jones teaches at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, but she grew up in Kentucky. Both her books are set there, in the fictional town of Roma.

As a natural storyteller and master of dialogue, Jones follows in the footsteps of such Kentucky-born writers as Shelby Hearon (Owning Jolene) and Ed McClanahan (The Natural Man). Jones, however, achieves greater emotional depth.

The time of her novel is fall 1993, and she brings Roma to life through the eyes and noses of a wide range of people: from 13-year-old Emily Houchens to Emily's 28-year-old teacher Susanna Mitchell, to former minor-league baseball player Tony Joyce, to 50-ish factory worker Wyatt Powell.

The novel begins with Emily, on one of her daily walks in the woods. She stumbles upon a body and enigmatically decides not to tell anyone about it. Later, Emily is bullied at school by some of the more popular kids -- pelted with food in the cafeteria.

Meanwhile, Susanna's pleasure-loving older sister Ronnie goes missing. As if Susanna doesn't have enough to worry about. She's already having to severely discipline her students for the bullying incident, especially the instigator, Christopher, whose mother has been giving Susanna trouble.

And Susanna is dissatisfied with her marriage to high-school music teacher Dale; it's a relationship so far held together by their little daughter Abby.

Susanna becomes more than a little interested in working on the Ronnie case with the town detective Tony Joyce. Tony is not only good-looking, he is also black, in a town where the white majority hasn't yet quite accepted integration.

Then there is Wyatt, who might have stepped out of a Larry McMurtry novel. Even his dog Boss is a likable character. "Wyatt hadn't started sharing his house with an animal until it had become clear, sometime in his forties, that he was never going to find the right woman for the job."

Wyatt goes drinking with his younger male co-workers from the local electric motor factory; they end up at the same place Ronnie is last seen.

Jones does a terrific job of interweaving all the threads of plot, so that every character is linked in some way to the others.

One of the intriguing aspects of The Next Time You See Me is that Susanna, the main protagonist by virtue of the amount of coverage Jones gives her, turns out to be the least appealing, much as Gene did in John Knowles's 1959 classic A Separate Peace. That very novel is being taught by Susanna to her Grade 8 class.

 

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest book is the comic novel Dating.

 

The Next Time You See Me
By Holly Goddard Jones
Simon & Schuster, 372 pages, $29

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 J8

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