A quietly astonishing collection ... The strongest stories... are shot through with almost subliminal strangeness and build toward endings of uncanny attenuation, endings worthy of Raymond Carver in his later, elegiac mode.
The 15 just shy-of minimalist tales collected in San Antonio writer Andrew Porter’s latest book, The Disappeared, suggest that the marriage of existential crisis and domestic ennui, once the exclusive territory of arthouse auteurs like Ingmar Bergman or Louis Malle, can work convincingly as literary fiction set in a Riverwalk beer joint or a West Lake Hills patio party ... under Porter’s literary prowess, a comfortable get-together turns into a Dostoyevskian debate about murder and home invasion, and an infinity pool becomes a guilty grotto where a man and woman, ostensibly in mourning, negotiate the sorrows of an unrealized affair.
While every story in the collection is alike in theme and tone, each one is haunting, memorable, and stands alone in its own right ... Despite their similarity in form, tone, and content, the stories in The Disappeared are not formulaic.
Again and again, Porter’s men—all who could well be the same man, besides a variation in job or home city or relationship status—play through the stages of dissolution ... This leads to a gradual effect of dilution, and in some cases, the recurring motif quickly calcifies into cliché ... Given this repetition, it is the stories that shift gear a little that are more memorable ...
In the first story of Andrew Porter’s latest collection, The Disappeared, the narrator is a guest at a house party in Austin, Texas. He is middle-aged with a wife and two kids, and it’s his first time seeing his old friends together for some time. While they sit around a fire pit smoking cigarettes and drinking, he watches them through sliding glass doors: “I’d known most of these people close to twenty years, and yet at that moment I barely recognized them.” Alienated, he slips unnoticed from the party and follows his wife home, only to later find himself out in their garden, investigating a strange noise, from where he “could see the house about twenty yards away and the faces of my children and Laura framed in the kitchen window. […] I realized that they were staring at me but couldn’t see me. They had no idea where I was.”
Many things, both physical and abstract, slip quietly into the night in The Disappeared. Like the narrator of “Austin,” Porter’s characters live in a perpetual state of Irish goodbye, finding that memory, friends and careers have dissolved without a number to call, sometimes gone for years before anyone has realized. This is unsurprising when you begin to notice a recurring theme in these stories: the arrival of middle-age. Populated mostly by artists or by the friends of artists, Porter’s idea of disappearance seems first and foremost to be one of youth; of the dreams borne through the first three decades of life that are cliched because so many—particularly artists—carry them. In the excellent short story “Jimena,” an older couple find themselves trying to live vicariously through the title character, a charismatic young ceramicist living what seems like “a teenage artist’s fantasy.” Near the end of the story, the husband finally admits to his wife that “Sometimes I find myself trying so hard to hold on to that idea of who I used to be, you know? It’s so painful to let that go.”
In other stories, there are locally famous artists who live next door, or the narrator is married to the “virtuoso” cello player whose dreams are being lost to a neurological disorder. They tend to live the lives of professionals, academics and creatives in San Antonio or Austin, collecting succulents and suffering through cancer. Meanwhile, Porter develops an atmosphere around his fiction, a sun-starched mist of desperate nostalgia, where each ending feels like a loss. He does at times play his hand a little too heavily, where closing lines undo some previous delicacy. Other times, however, he finds the perfect exit from a scene, leaving behind only a low ache in the gut. At the end of the eponymous story, the narrator floats in a pool with his disappeared friend’s girlfriend, having spent two days boxing up a missing man’s belongings. The narrator opens his eyes to see that:
“She was just staring at me, and I gathered that she was probably thinking what I was thinking, that we had just spent these two very strange days together, and that after I left we would probably never see each other again. […] and yet for now, we still had about a half hour or so before that happened, a half hour or so to pretend, a half hour to float here on our backs in the darkness, in silence, but together.”
Of all that disappears across this collection, though, it is interesting that the most consistent is that of the narrators themselves. Again and again, Porter’s men—all who could well be the same man, besides a variation in job or home city or relationship status—play through the stages of dissolution. You realize that this is his almost-obsessive consideration: becoming the passenger in one’s own life. It gets to a point in the book where each successive narrator follows like a ghost behind the last. This leads to a gradual effect of dilution, and in some cases, the recurring motif quickly calcifies into cliché. As quoted from “Austin,” the narrator there watches his friends through that sliding-glass door. This image crops up in The Disappeared no less than five times, and always to the same end” a man, watching some aspect of his own life from the outside.
Given this repetition, it is the stories that shift gear a little that are more memorable. Because while Porter’s men remain a little irritating, sometimes petty and often passive to the point of inertia, they are fantastic examples of modern character and all its necessary anxiety. When they are allowed more space to be difficult in, the stories feel more difficult and rewarding also. One of the best examples of this is the story “Breathe,” an account of a man’s failure to act when his five-year-old falls into a swimming pool. Gavin is both anxious to the point of hypochondria, and unreactive when his son disappears beneath the water. Porter’s obsessive eye treads over the brief event for sixteen pages, mapping the route of Gavin’s guilt, so that when his son finally does what had been feared the most and asks his father, “Why weren’t you there?” you are able to feel both the gratification of a reader and the incredible punch of guilt delivered to a parent.
Girlhood’s Repression in “Brutes”
Porter might well have drawn the walls of his fiction too closely in The Disappeared, that’s true. But what is lacking in range has been traded for the complications of depth, and in the process... he has been able, like Chekhov before, to reach an aesthetic of regret.
Porter is a master of the form, and some of the collection’s briefest entries pack the biggest emotional punch ... The understated prose of these reflective stories will appeal to fans of Richard Ford, Elizabeth Strout, and Alice Munro.