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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

(The following review originally appeared in my newsletter, Bloody Knuckles. The review has been approved of by the author's mother. Thank you, Patti, for your insight and proofing.)

Die A Little. It was a hell of an introduction to the prose of Megan Abbott. I’ll be honest, I was just looking for something to listen to on my way into work that wasn’t morning talk radio or commercial laden music channels. The cover is what drew me in; additionally, Ellen Archer was gifted in her reading. I stuck with it and by the time I finished my twenty-five minute commute along winding, twisting surface streets, I was hooked on the story. I remember what struck me was the immediate reversal of traditional roles, how strong women drove he story and how men were wall dressing. It was as hard hitting as any of the Hard Case novels I’d been eating up for more than a year.


Next up was The Song Is You, my favorite to date. Abbott spins the notorious case of the Black Dahlia in a new and sinister way. 1940s Hollywood jumps off the page and the hapless hero, Hap, gets himself tangled in more than one wicked web. The story is so alive, so real, I felt like I was there watching this man’s world slide away from him.

I had to read Queenpin in large print because it was the only copy my local library had on its shelves. Once again the women flex and strut and command the men around them, knowing how to play them and when. The climatic ending is surprising and works so well I wonder how I didn’t see it coming except that Abbott is such a wordsmith she knew how to move me along without giving away the twist.

By the time Bury Me Deep launched, I had pre-ordered it from one of the chains. (Later, I won an autographed copy from another author’s website.) The story of Winnie Ruth Judd, the Trunk Murderess, had interested me for quite some time. Several years earlier some of my theatre students had workshopped a short play based on the same story. If only they had waited. Abbott delivered a solid retelling of well known murder case set in Depression Era America, addressing the lingering question everyone had at the time but never received any answer for: Why would a woman board a train with trunks filled with chopped up body parts? Abbott doesn’t set out to solve the case, she simply uses it as the back drop for a really good mystery.

Now comes The End of Everything. It is filled with prose that makes me wonder why, after thirty plus years of being a writer, why can’t I write like that? To say she gives us another impressive, strong female protagonist is to undersell the power of thirteen year old Lizzie Hood. The wonder, the fear, the daily uncertainty of growing up in a suburb full of secrets and lies unfolds through Lizzie’s eyes. When her best friend Evie Verver goes missing, it is through Lizzie we live and feel during the agonizing days after the disappearance.

The story strikes close to home for me. I was a few years older than Lizzie’s character when southeast Michigan was terrorized by a lurking presence known only as the Oakland County Child Killer. During the long, overlapping months at the end of 1976 and on through the winter of 1977, four children between the ages of 10 and 12 were abducted and murdered, their bodies left alongside snowy roads. The only clue: a blue Gremlin that always seemed to be part of every story.

The summer in between the two long winters was a tense time. I remember cutting across a field at the end of the dead end street I grew up on and coming out along a major road when out of nowhere, a rusted, blue, pick-up truck pulled over, the passenger door flew open, and a man I didn’t know told me, my nephew, and my buddy to ‘get in, your mother wants me to take you home.’ We stood there for a second or two staring at the old, creased faced of the stranger before my buddy told him to ‘f*** off’ and slammed the door. We ran back across the field until we reached the concrete front steps of my house where we collapsed huffing and puffing. We told our parents and neighbors and everyone said it was probably someone they all knew but just couldn’t quite place his face or name. I kept pointing out he was driving a blue truck. My dad said a blue truck wasn’t the same as a blue Gremlin.

I don’t know if Abbott was around at the time of the killings, but growing up in southeastern Michigan, it would be hard to not to know the story, or the story of another little girl who was taken from a slumber party almost twenty years later. There were rumors that maybe the Oakland County Child Killer was back, only this little girl was from Macomb County and what if he moved around the country doing the same thing? A young man was eventually convicted of the last little girl’s death when strands of her hair were found in the carpet of his van. He was far too young to have been killing in the 70’s.

The terror, the wonder, the suspicion all came flooding back for me as I read The End of Everything. It made wonder if maybe I had seen something long ago, and if that strange, old man in the rusted out, blue, pick-up wasn’t somebody anyone in the neighborhood knew after all. Abbott has exposed similar dark shadows of a neighborhood, of a place where everyone knows everyone but doesn’t know anything about anyone. Monsters like child killers just don’t live next door to us, do they? It takes a determined thirteen year old girl to pry away the fa├žade of her Norman Rockwell world and expose us to truths we might see but turn our eyes away from before we recognize them.

In the end, The End of Everything is a departure for Abbott from her noir roots, but it is perhaps the most frightening work she has done thus far. Where Bury Me Deep was gruesome, and The Song is You was darkly melancholy, The End of Everything makes me sit up in the night when I hear the creaks of a settling house or the slow approach of car that has driven all the way down to the end of a clearly marked dead end street only to turn around in my driveway and slowly drive away.