Catalano’s dark novel shines where the sun won’t, gives hope in small doses, and treats trauma and family with grace.
Kevin Catalano’s debut novel, Where the Sun Shines Out, opens with a character waking to the disarming sensation of a human ear smashed against his cheek. Here Dean realizes, at the same time the reader does, that he has entered a new world, stuffed in a trunk with his brother, Jason. The intense start promises how the world will work: full speed ahead regardless of darkness. The pace also quickly alerts the reader that this is no conventional kidnapping story. While the crime and its immediate results are riveting, they also are mostly foundation. There isn’t prolonged mystery or even short-term dwelling in these events. The third chapter jumps forward nine years. The total story is told via connected stories in a web of legacy surrounding the characters of Chittenango, New York, starting with Dean’s parents, turning to a boy named Brett, whom Dean alternately influences, bullies, and explores homosexuality with. From Brett, there are additional relationships developed in these Chittenango stories loaded with family dysfunction, economic hardship, and drug addiction.
It is apparent early that post-traumatic life is going to be difficult for Dean and for everyone he touches.
“Dean-O?” Karl tries, but his son’s eyeballs don’t want to see. They move in frightening, mechanical jerks, as though he were a robot malfunctioning.
“We need help,” Rene spits at Karl, shrinking to the floor, “God help us, we need help.
Sometimes it risks being too dark, but the strength of the novel is finding ways to shine where the sun won’t, where the only available light to be found is through an appreciation of darkness and an idea that beauty can fill in for hope. Grace is given in small, but potent doses. Here Dean finds it in the consolation of a half-sister too young to fully know the dark side of her family legacy.
When he first saw Sara, who skipped to him in a Dorothy dress, brown hair in braids, he sat on the floor and wept, right there in the family room. The child put her arms around him, her love immediate and unconditional. She said, “S’okay. S’okay.” They knew each other. She understood the roots of his pain. Her touch was the only one that healed.
Consistent with all of these stories is the trustworthy guiding hands of Catalano delivering an entertaining story about a specific world the reader has likely never seen. They are all told from a fairly distant third-person view that allows Catalano to highlight the darkness with a compassionate realism, but there were times I wanted the book to zoom deeper into the interior. To handle the emotions his characters could not. Some events are too intense, times too intense, and relationships too intense, but the grace of handling pain and putting words to the emotions, giving the characters control is often held back. Here Dean’s father faces this dilemma:
This sounded so stupid; it was why Karl never talked in this way. Trying to explain feelings was impossible, pointless. They weren’t meant to be explained, just felt, and anyway, he didn’t have the vocabulary for it. When he tried, it sounded too obvious.
Reading this book led me to think about several other missing-person books I have read over the last couple of years and how they all share a common trait of intensity. Where they differ is their focus. Descent, by Tim Johnston, uses suspense, unraveling the mystery. Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam, works from the kidnapper’s eye, an uncomfortable closeness to his perspective. Nobody Is Ever Missing, by Catherine Lacey, addresses the push and pull of individual escape. The Missing Girl, by Jacqueline Doyle, takes the compression of flash fiction to intensify the missing’s story via what can be told and what can only be implied. Catalano’s specialty is the aftermath. Exploring what happens next. How far the stain can spread. How it is unable to blot out the beauty completely.
The birds took off into noisy flight. Collectively, they skimmed the water going northward, then darted up above the budding trees. As they ascended high into the atmosphere, their shape accordioned — thinning out, then bunching — as if they were showing Brett how to breathe.