Senior year of high school. Lunch. Two hot dogs and a bag of Wise potato chips on the table in front of him. Barney Austin’s chem lab partner sits down across from him. “It looks like we’re going to get out of here on time,” his partner says. Barney asks,
“Yeah, but once we’re out, where do we go?”
“What? . . . How do you know about Baltimore?”
That’s when his companion pulls out the photo: a Baltimore public park on a sunny day. “That’s where we lost . . . my brother,” his companion says.
Barney points to another spot on the picture, “fear and panic on [his] face,” and says “That’s where we lost . . . my sister. That’s the exact spot.”
That haunting coincidence binds these two high school friends for the next several years as they embark on a single-minded search for their lost siblings in John Dermot Woods’ excellent novel “The Baltimore Atrocities.” But while that search is the driving narrative force in the book, it is only one of dozens of stories Barney relates. Because in “The Baltimore Atrocities,” Woods takes two different forms of fiction and joins them to create a book that is like nothing else.
Each chapter begins with two to four pages of straightforward first-person narration of the high school lab partners. The rest of each chapter is made up of short-short stories, each detailing the crushing tragedy of a different set of people. Here is one in full:
Shortly after returning from a tragic summer vacation in the Poconos, a man in Towson filed for divorce from his wife because, one afternoon, while out on a pontoon boat alone with their two daughters, she saved the wrong daughter, in his opinion, when both daughters, neither of whom knew how to swim, fell into the lake. She saved the ten-year-old, whom he felt he had already lost, and not the six-year-old, for whom he had high hopes. During the divorce proceedings, he was asked what these high hopes were exactly, and he said that he expected that she would be strong willed and clear of purpose and understand the weakness of her mother, and would have inflicted on that woman whatever justice was fitting and proper.
Almost all of the stories take place in and around Baltimore, in Roland Park, Mount Vernon, Butchers Hill, Hampden, Fells Point, Poppleton, Waverly, Greenmount, Highlandtown, Canton, Remington, Federal Hill, Bolton Hill, Dundalk, Rosedale, Towson, Timonium, Ellicott City, Patterson Park, Gunpowder State Park, and Druid Hill Park. But this is not a series of interconnected stories like “Winesburg, Ohio,” simply because they share a setting. Nor is it a novel built of related stories joined by common characters like David Mitchell’s “Ghostwritten.” This is something different, in some ways more impressive, and a lot trickier to grasp.
Every one of the short stories in “The Baltimore Atrocities” acts as a metaphor that has some bearing on the narrator’s current quest or his state of mind. They progress from tales of abductions and accidental deaths, to murders and murder-suicides, and eventually on to solo suicides. The motivations of the characters likewise move from grief, to anger, to suspicion, to hopelessness, just as Barney becomes more and more desperate and disheartened in his quest. Barney’s choice of stories provides the reader with insights into his character that he himself might not recognize. And when he does editorialize, his asides usually contain cryptic bits of loaded information that pull the reader forward, desperate to know what happens next in the larger story.
Barney and his companion spend a year in Baltimore, much of it in baseless forms of busy work. They pour through newspaper archives, attempting to research every Baltimore kidnapping over the last several decades. Convinced there is a conspiracy to cover up the abductions, they attend public hearings daily, regardless of the crime being tried, in an attempt to understand the system that allows so many children to disappear. They are delusional with grief, possessed by it, and defined by it. When they hear about a woman so proud of the murder she committed that she wants to cut off her hands and have them preserved as a symbol of her success, the narrator tells his companion, “I could not even begin to conceive of ever experiencing such a total sense of closure.”
As in all narratives about crime and loss, such “closure” is a big theme. Barney argues against his friend’s view that a “lack of resolution” is “completely unbearable,” noting “the book’s admission of our ultimately dissatisfied psyches, as a welcome—and, in fact, necessary—overture.”
This single-minded obsession means that the narrator reads his experience onto the world, which allows Woods to compose endless variations on loss. And like a great composer who can explore and surprise with more variations than the audience could imagine, Woods forces the reader to re-examine the singular loss of an abducted child through the myriad lenses of nearly a hundred other varieties of loss. We listen first to tragedies of the two main characters, then suddenly hear another, the same but different, and another, and another. Each micro-story is so intense and suffused with meaning that it demands a moment of reflection before we move on to the next one.
Woods is a cartoonist, as well as a novelist, and a black-and-white illustration accompanies each of these “atrocities.” (I recommend looking up his webcomic “Animals in Midlife Crises.” It’s very funny.) The art never looks quite right, the faces misshapen, the anatomy off, so it comes across as something like a high school sketch—but you know you couldn’t pull it off yourself. The images don’t add anything to the stories, and there are no drawings for Barney’s story, but they do give each story one extra beat before the reader turns the page and adds a bit to the phantasmagoric aspect of the book.
Though “The Baltimore Atrocities” is set in Baltimore, it is not really about it. The book’s single oblique reference to race shows that Baltimore, a place where no injustice can be discussed without some discourse on race, acts as a symbolic city, rather than an actual place. So, when Woods writes sentences such as “the people of Baltimore were quick to squander a child’s life,” we wonder if he is really talking about the people of Baltimore, or humanity at large.