We Agreed to Meet Just Here by Scott Blackwood

Posted: June 23, 2010 in Book Reviews
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The first thing we observe about Scott Blackwood’s novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, is its small size—roughly 150 pages, when we take into account blank pages and where the first chapter begins.  Once we crack its spine and get to reading, we see that the chapters act as little vignettes, each spanning only a few pages, and that they alternate between the characters’ points-of-view.  Interspersed, we find italicized chapters told in first-person plural, revealing one of the book’s central themes: community response—emotionally and physically—to tragic accidents.

Blackwood’s debut novel takes place in suburban Austin, where the residents encounter a chain reaction of mysterious incidents.  Dennis Lipsy, a thirty-eight year old lawyer, has become attracted to his teenage neighbor, Natalie, and has gone as far as making advances toward her.  His wife is unable to get a hold of him when their son, Isaac, falls from a tree and breaks his arm.  That’s because Dennis has followed Natalie to the theater downtown, where she’s taking in a movie alone.  His wife, Winnie, doesn’t believe him when he says he was with a client at the time of their son’s accident.  She goes as far as to contact his clients in order to check up on the stories he tells her.  When Natalie goes missing, the tension level causes us to grip this book tighter and turn the pages quicker.

We know where Natalie is, of course; we’re told in the first section.  The night she goes missing, P.G. McWhirter steals the Lipsy’s Chevy Blazer, because that’s what he does: he steals the vehicles for money, then they’re transported over the border where they can blend in.  En route to the drop-off, he’s distracted by a toothache and loses control of the Blazer, causing the tires to slide right into Natalie, who was walking along the shoulder of the road.

Later, he would remember the girl looking back over her shoulder at him, smiling, a funky wide-brimmed hat tilted on her head.  We agreed to meet just here, she seemed to say.  But it would be the photo from the TV news he was actually remembering.

Though we know what happened to Natalie, the book still has the feel of a mystery novel, likely because the other characters are concerned with finding out where Natalie has gone, and eventually, figuring out what happened to her.  But seeing the residents of Deep Eddy solve these mysteries isn’t what keeps us reading; we continue turning the page to find out how Dennis and P.G. react to what has happened.  Dennis’s lies cause strain on his relationship with Isaac and Winnie, and Natalie’s disappearance doesn’t curb his infatuation for her; P.G.’s guilt throbs in his aching tooth, as he worries over the consequences of his accident and what might happen to his wife and baby.  Blackwood masterfully utilizes dramatic irony to heighten tension in these situations.

There’s also the case of Odie Dodd—the retired physician, stricken with cancer, whose wife, Ruth, can’t find him.  He’s wandered off, and the community assumes it’s the result of an argument over whether or not he should continue chemotherapy.  We see Odie throughout the book, though.  He’s hanging out with Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple, a man who had asked Odie to vaccinate children in Jonestown—“the axis around which his life winds,” according to Ruth.

We’re not sure if it’s trauma brought on by cancer or having known Jim Jones that causes Odie to walk and talk with this dead cult leader.  But Odie can’t go home until he achieves peace with himself.  Does he blame himself for not being able to stop the massacre?  Or is he angered that he was almost a part of it—ody, being a suffix for the Heaven’s Gate followers.  “Words fail,” Jones simply explains, and we can’t help but wonder how things may have changed had Odie understood what Jones wanted from him prior to the mass suicide.  And how would the present be different had Dennis not neglected his son, P.G. chose not to steal the Lipsy’s car, or Winnie decided against giving up her first-born?  The collective narrator asks:

What if all our involuntary gestures were photographed and then laid side by side?  Would they tell our alternative histories? Reveal thoughts that did not quite become acts but instead worked away secret and silent inside us?

While we ponder these questions, we’ll examine the family dynamic—what’s known and kept secret—and how it relates to community in this story.  We won’t be able to ignore how a close-knit neighborhood can feel suffocating and even cultish.  But not everything’s bleak in this novel.  We’re entranced by the poetry in Blackwood’s lines, which dances off the tongue when read aloud.  We root for the possibility of redemption and become mesmerized by the supernatural.  Hope sweeps over us at those times when the characters’ narratives come together, showing us how they’re connected, and making us believe that while tragedy happens, we can still show compassion toward those who have made mistakes.

New Issues Press
February 2, 2009
$26.00 Hardcover

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