See How Small by Scott Blackwood, review by Bruce Jacobs
It would be too bad if Scott Blackwood (We Agreed to Meet Just Here) were to be pigeonholed a "writer's writer" or dismissed as merely an MFA stylist just because his second novel, See How Small, demands attentive reading and an occasional suspension of disbelief. Though he teaches writing at Southern Illinois University, See How Small is obviously much more than an exercise to impress a writing class. Part mystery and part ghost story, it builds slowly into a complex narrative about a brutal crime and its impact on the Austin, Tex., neighborhood of its victims. During a robbery of an ice-cream store, three teenage girl employees are stripped, gagged with their underwear and killed in the fire the robbers leave in their wake. The crime goes unsolved for years and gradually, individually takes its toll on the witnesses, store customers, first responders, the girls' families and the criminals themselves.
In short chapters, Blackwood's narrative moves among the characters' stories (past, present and future), exposing their personal struggles independent of the tragedy and at the same time revealing clues to the events that led to the robbery. Kate, owner of the store and mother of two of the victims, retreats from her grief into affairs as her estranged husband flounders in his own business. Jack is the fireman who fights through the flames to find the girls too late to save them. Michael, the getaway driver, is too hopped up on pills and weed at the scene of the crime to understand how much trouble he's in. Rosa is a local news reporter still digging for answers several years later, even though she knows that "some stories don't have an ending even if you want them to." Hollis, a PTSD-impaired Iraq War vet, lived in his elaborately decked-out "art car," which was in the ice-cream shop parking lot at the time of the robbery. Some years after the tragedy, Truck and Trailer, a couple of homeless buddies of Hollis, ramble on about phantom missionaries and encourage his delusions. In a kind of Greek chorus, even the dead girls provide commentary on their pasts and imagined futures.
Blackwood's language rarely misses--whether describing the unstable Hollis, who "can't find the mental thread on which to string the everyday beads of life," or Jack's teen daughter's boyfriend, who "smells pungently like bong smoke and carries around a little tackle box of harmonicas in different keys and can't play a lick." Five years after the crime, Kate and Jack become a tenuous couple, Michael's downward spiral into drugs finds him raiding his stepmother's medicine cabinet and Hollis turns into an even more unhinged oracle. It is no small feat to make all this work, but Blackwood so successfully weaves together these disparate strands that See How Small turns into a rich tapestry of human failing and hopeful striving.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.