July 21st, 1955: Miles Teagarden and Alison Greening go for a secret midnight swim at the old quarry. It has to be secret because the two are cousins, and their parents don’t like the idea of them getting too close. But Miles is already infatuated with fourteen-year-old Alison. She tells him that they should make a pact. No matter what happens, they’ll meet again on this date twenty years in the future.
Twenty years later, Miles returns. Alison Greening has been dead for twenty years; she died that night of the pact. But Miles believes that she’ll keep her promise and return. They were so close, like two halves of the same person, and he’s never recovered from losing her.
But people aren’t pleased to see him. When he enters a diner in Plainview, he becomes immediately aware that he’s the focus of a lot of hostile attention. A local girl has been murdered, and as a stranger, he’s automatically suspect. Miles wasn’t in the area at the time of the murder, but proving that could be difficult – especially if no one’s listening.
It’s extremely difficult to synopsise this book without spoiling it for others, as it has the structure of a detective story. To mention who dies before the end obviously means that person is no longer on any new reader’s list of suspects. It’s not giving away much to say that the book appears to be a dry-run for the phenomenally successful Ghost Story. It’s ‘tidier’ than that astonishing, glorious mess of a book. If You Could See Me Now is a first-person narrative, which helps keep the story focussed; no million and one subplots and sub-sub plots here.
That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have its share of ripe characters and stories. Miles’ Cousin Duane is first introduced as the architect of his own ‘dream house’, which is a neighbourhood joke, as it’s not big enough for an adult to stand upright in. Duane’s daughter – also named Alison – is one of the few genuinely likeable characters in the story, sneaking out through her window at night to meet her rebellious biker boyfriend. Her interest in Miles seems to go a little beyond friendly – and her boyfriend isn’t inclined to discourage her.
Pastor Bertilsson is a thoroughly obnoxious character, not above assisting the Almighty by pointing a spiteful finger at imagined evil-doers. Part-way through the book, it becomes clear that Miles is having a breakdown, so the whole idea of a ghostly close encounter becomes less likely.
That’s about as much as I’m prepared to say about this one. I enjoyed it. I thought it was a bit long – Straub rarely uses one sentence where three will do – but it holds the interest and the man is a pretty classy writer, messy or not.
Yep, this is one of Straub's most straight-forward novels, but certainly is none the worse for it. Maybe not quite as satisfying as later books, but a leap forward from the earlier 'Julia' (aka 'Full Circle').
I'm on my third copy of this book - its one of those you lend out and never get back for some reason!