Gautreaux’s second novel, The Clearing, was so warmly praised (Annie Proulx called it ‘the finest American novel I’ve read in a long, long time’) that it’s hardly surprising his follow-up has much in common with it. The Missing also has a hero returning to the USA after the First World War, centres on Louisiana, and contains vivid low-life scenes and atmospheric descriptions of godforsaken rural backwaters.
The Clearing, however, is a static novel, largely set in a swampy mill town called Nimbus. The Missing differs in that it follows the example of Melville’s The Confidence-Man and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in using a Mississippi journey as the basis for a picaresque narrative; and as a result it’s a more variegated and populous work, which takes a much bigger bite out of 1920s America.
Its likable protagonist is Sam Simoneaux, who left his French-speaking family’s farm in the hope of earning a living as a piano player in New Orleans. A prologue details his brief experience on the killing fields of Picardy, which at every stage is tinged with absurdity and futility: