How can a story that begins with the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl end on such an upbeat note 250 pages later with that same girl standing in a circus tent dreaming of spiritual liberation as a trapeze artist? How can a novel go from grim to grand in a brief, whispery page-turn?
If you're a novelist named Amanda Davis, the answer is something like a trapeze act itself: deceptively simple from the audience's point of view, but high up near the big-top roof, the flip-fall-catch is one of muscle, grace and, above all, timing.
In her novel Wonder When You'll Miss Me, Amanda Davis, like a trapeze gymnast, knows how to dazzle her audience with a literary act that disobeys the rules of gravity and leaves us, heart in throat, wishing it would never end.
Unfortunately, the novel does and, sadder yet, so did the short happy life of Ms. Davis. On March 14, Amanda died when the small plane her father was piloting during a promotional tour for the novel crashed into a North Carolina mountain. A sad story, but for those of us who didn't know her personally, it is just one more obituary on a page already filled with good, decent people who have gone to the hereafter. Just another obit, that is, until you read Wonder When You'll Miss Me or Davis' collection of short stories, Circling the Drain. Then the loss can be a profound, smothering weight. Nothing else will spring fresh from Amanda Davis' imagination; we're left with just two thin volumes of words.
It's both joy and agony that those words are so good, so dead-on target as Davis describes the pain of lonely adolescent life. If there's any comfort to be had in news of the author's cut-short life, it's that Wonder When You'll Miss Me is the kind of novel that will endure. Even though it's marketed as adult fiction, this is really the kind of story to be read by teens -- males and females alike -- going through that horrible, bumpy transition into adulthood.
Faith Duckle, the overweight girl who's assaulted under the bleachers during her school's Homecoming game, is a kind of Everyteen -- we've all had bits of Faith's loneliness and optimism-against-all-odds at one point in our lives. Davis hones in on Faith's troubled psyche so quickly and accurately that we immediately embrace the girl as an intimate friend. Faith is the kind of character who steps off the page in the first paragraph.
After the attack by the group of boys, described in stark but subtle terms (I stared at buckles and pockets. He pinched my nose so my mouth fell open. Then the terrible sound of zippers ), Faith tries to commit suicide, ends up in a mental hospital, and sheds 48 pounds before her release. She returns to school as a renewed Faith, but she is dogged by the presence of her former self, which manifests itself as Fat Girl.
While constantly stuffing her face with junk food, Fat Girl is a menacing, nagging ghost who dispenses advice like: "There are all kinds of anger. Some kinds are just more useful than others." She dogs Faith's shadow, insisting that the teen might be able to shed pounds, but she'll never lose the person she was. There were days when she was a comfort and days when she was a nightmare, Faith says. Eventually, she becomes more of a nightmare after she convinces Faith to revenge the rape.
The "character" of Fat Girl is a marvelous stroke on Davis' part because, honestly, we can never fully leave our selves back in teenhood. We may move on, but something always clings. Wonder When You'll Miss Me is all about the process of un-clinging the bad debris while coming to terms with the bits that can't be shaken loose.
In Faith's case, this means running away to join the circus (something Davis herself did for several months). She renames herself Annabelle and is taken on by the Fartlesworth Circus as it tours the Eastern seaboard. She begins by picking up trash around the midway, then works her way up to assisting with costumes, grooming the elephants and, eventually, practicing with the trapeze artists. Along the way, we watch as she grows from frightened, easily-manipulated girl to a self-confident, brave fighter willing to somersault through life without a net.
Part of Wonder When You'll Miss Me's appeal is Davis' no-nonsense style which makes Faith such an accessible character. But it's also filled with an array of details about circus life which place us effortlessly inside that bizarre culture, turning even a description of an elephant performance into an authentic glimpse of the big top:
It was loud inside. We stopped at the edge of the ring. In one graceful move, Olivia bent her head, Jim stepped up on her trunk, and she lifted him into the air, then began to walk again and Bluebell followed. I let go of her harness and stayed at the edge of the ring and did my best to smile, but I felt the heat of the lights and the people all around us, looking, their eyes like tiny hot bullets thumping me from all sides. I couldn't focus on anything, not even what Jim was doing. The sawdust made me want to sneeze, and trying not to made my eyes water. There was a strange soupiness to it all. My heart hammered away and everything sparkled. The band played tinny music so loud it seemed to echo in and out of every crevice, bouncing wildly around the enormous tent. I grinned until my jaw ached.
Just as the circus transforms Faith into a girl with a sequin-speckled future, Davis turns her descriptions of circus life into small parables about how it's possible to find beauty, even among the sawdust and elephant dung:
I liked this feeling of lightness. It was what I imagined the world felt like from up on the trapeze, what Mina the Ballerina must know. It was what I imagined it felt like to fall when you saw the outstretched hands before you and knew you would come out of a spin and be caught. It was this lightness, this emptiness, this trust that you weren't about to plummet to an unforgiving surface, powered by the weight of yourself. No. You would spin and be caught, you would flip and fall and catch, and you would swing back to a platform at the end, arms in the air, high above the crowd, proud of your victory over what hadn't happened.
There are times when the novel feels like scattered bits and pieces, as if it had been written in fits and starts -- something akin to a teenager's diary. But when you reach the final page, when you come to the epiphanic moments of the book, those disjointed passages coalesce beautifully, even transcendently.
At one low point, Faith frets, I didn't matter. I saw that. I didn't matter at all. But, in truth, she does matter -- she matters a great deal, especially to any young people reading Wonder When You'll Miss Me and thinking they are the only lonely teenagers on the planet. More important, Amanda Davis matters; and her words -- the only things most of us will ever know her by -- matter the most.
In the final pages, Faith confides, I wanted to believe that I was not so easily replaced.
She's not, and neither is Amanda Davis. | April 2003
David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.