There’s a lot of words for book reviewers to throw around when faced with a novel that’s bound to shake readers to the core—multilayered, complex, riveting. We use these words poignantly in some cases; by force of habit in others; sometimes, even out of misplaced obligation.
But when it comes to Kirby Gann’s Ghosting, most such adjectives feel fundamentally inadequate. It’s not just that it’s difficult to verbalize sufficient praise for Gann’s deeply felt thematics, but that Ghosting delivers a punch worthy of a warning label. Simply put, the novel conveys far more than readers might expect from a medium-length account of small-town criminality.
Ghosting seems crafted specifically to elicit tangled feelings. By turn lyrical and violent, meekly quotidian and repulsively harsh, it makes austere commentary on themes like family, memory, hierarchy, cruelty, and survival. However, Gann is far from overtly philosophical. The insights surface one by one in a disjointed procession, like fortuitous byproducts of an ostensibly unpretentious plot.
Gann’s protagonist, Cole, is a boy cresting on the start of manhood. Raised in a broken home, Cole comes off as shyly likable and appealingly flawed—so much so, in fact, that it’s tempting to try and recognize him from any number of other, unrelated coming-of-age tales.
Cole’s motives quickly become central to the story, yet Gann keeps him at arm’s length. The boy is vulnerable and soft, but if he spends a lot of time in sentimental contemplation, we’re not privy to it. Instead, we’re left to root for Cole’s safety—which Gann throws into alarming question from the start—even as the narrative focus shifts to other characters.
Like Cole, Ghosting’s plot might appear familiar. Cole’s brother disappears; the dual threats of financial ruin and vindication from a local drug lord loom large on the horizon. Impulsively, Cole finds no better solution than to take up employment with the very underworld that threatens his lost brother, while simultaneously yearning for his brother’s girl.
It’s not the plot that distinguishes Ghosting but the landscape. This is a small town of the sort that the past few decades have taught us to forget—a patch of impoverished, vulnerable, decaying Americana. It’s a place where grit and cruelty are mixed with tenderness and innocence, and where evolution is linked bizarrely with the slow tragedy of abandoned childhood dreams. That Ghosting’s setting is ultimately transformed from gothic nightmare to daylit suburban sprawl fails to bring relief, but yields instead a lingering sense of mourning. Momentous characters lose relevance and become displaced when their world is sanitized.
Readers should move through the narrative quickly to follow Ghosting’s tense crescendo. Gann renders each scene in cinematographic, evenly paced detail—zooming first to wet autumn leaves beneath running feet, then panning to a decrepit building, then pausing to let his readers take in the distant braying of wild dogs. Towards the middle of the book, it starts to seem as if Gann has been holding himself back, only to lose his grip on a chapter so disturbing that even today’s media-hardened audiences may find it impossible to read. The scene is overtly graphic, and its cruelty uncovers few insights. However, the novel recovers thereafter, and moves smoothly towards its inevitable end.
It’s easy enough to draw parallels between Ghosting and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or David Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff. The link is almost involuntary, as all three address poverty, violence, and America’s rural underbelly in geographic proximity of one another. However, Ghosting straddles both run-of-the-mill suburbia and its less fortunate vicinity with relative ease (and without comparative pretension). Furthermore, it’s set in modern times, with sporadic landmarks of the twenty-first century flashing like lighthouses at the modern reader. As a result, Gann’s scenery is both more recognizable and more surreal than Pollock’s or Anderson’s, throwing the familiar into grotesque relief.
The lessons here are brutal, and the read likely to leave audiences unsettled—but necessarily so.