October 29, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

Songs for the Missing

Current Status
In Season
Stewart O'Nan
We gave it a B

For Kim Larsen, a cute, restless Midwestern girl counting the days until she goes to college, the summer of 2005 is ”the summer of her Chevette, of J.P. and letting her hair grow.” She works a mindless job at the Conoco station, drinks beers with her friends after punching out, and, later, home in bed, fights the spins by rereading the books of her vanishing girlhood. Stewart O’Nan, who has made a specialty of capturing the cadences of everyday American life, spends the first chapter of his new novel, Songs for the Missing, lulling us into the sweet, boring rhythms of Kim’s routine.

Then one afternoon, she disappears. Her Chevette turns up in a nearby city, but not Kim. This could be the start of a top-shelf whodunit, but O’Nan has different plans. After all, don’t we basically know what happened to Kim? Haven’t we seen the same lurid story unfold in the same hackneyed way in countless thrillers? Helping the search party scour the hills, Kim’s boyfriend, J.P., finds his mind flooded with manufactured images: ”flashes of bloody floors and basement torture chambers, chains and gags and leather masks. He knew they were fake, just bad stagecraft. What lay beneath the clichés was worse: Kim’s skin.”

O’Nan manages to skirt all clichés. The detective assigned to the case is a forgettable nonentity. Kim’s friends fret about secret romances and drug connections that may turn out to be dramatically relevant to the case. Or, more likely, won’t. Unlike thrillers, real life is packed with meaningless details. And unlike thrillers, real-life horror stories do not end with cathartic reckonings.

But there’s such a thing as being too cool, and ”Kim’s skin” is, alas, missing from the book. Who exactly was this girl, and what did she mean to her loved ones? O’Nan turns out to be better at capturing their ambivalence and confusion than their grief. And grief is one messy emotion that most thrillers, with all their crude sentimentality, come closer to getting right. B

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