To read Joseph McElroy’s 1969 novel Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs (Harper & Row) is to be airlifted into the midst of a Joycean thicket of daily life, to find oneself privy to events, references, and conversations that you are not prepared to understand and which may never become clear. Amidst the New York City of one-term mayor John Lindsay and the student protest movement, Jack Hind is obsessed for years with the unsolved kidnapping of a young girl named Laurel Hershey (this was ten years before the real-life kidnapping of Etan Patz grabbed the headlines and put his photograph on milk cartons). Spurred on by the mysterious appearance of a new clue, Hind again takes up the search for the long missing girl. but it is really the reader who gets kidnapped by McElroy and taken for a meandering trip through the mind and daily life of Hind and, for a brief spell, that of his wife Sylvia. Accustomed as we are to fictions that have edited out the extraneous, everything in McElroy’s second novel strikes us as extraneous at first. Like Hind, we find that we don’t know what constitutes a clue amongst all of the signs, conversations, and messages that he encounters daily. While Hind dutifully analyzes the trivia of his mostly ordinary life, the reader dutifully tries to analyze the overwhelming minutiae that McElroy fearlessly provides. Thus, Hind’s Kidnap sends both Hind and the reader on simultaneous searches for meaning.
Along the way, Hind learns that his obsession for the kidnapping is turning family and friends against him. For years he has played the role of grand inquisitor, treating them as little more than potential sources of clues. As a result, the second half of the novel is largely dedicated to the process of “dekidnapping” family and friends, trying to reset his relationships on a basis other than his single-minded search. Not surprisingly, what Hind and the reader each learn in the end is not at all what either of us set out to discover.
McElroy likes to smother the reader in a blanket of language that, while still about something, feels nearly abstract. At that point, you either sink or go with the flow and enjoy. Here’s a complete paragraph (there is no ending punctuation) from the “Sylvia” section of the book, which occurs about halfway into the book. Jack Hind’s wife Sylvia has temporarily stepped in as the narrator while he naps. She begins by remembering a conversation that occurred years earlier about the origin of vanilla, which leads to a ninety-page digression about their difficult relationship, before ending back in the midst of the conversation about vanilla. (May is their five-year old daughter, Plante is one of many friends who appear in the novel bearing clues, and I have no idea who Buck is.)
Vanity vanishes into a friendly tongue, shared tongue – wake-wake Jack – as Daddy into you and others, but then too as my Daddy-mystery into other unforeseen mysteries which, as when the breakfast TV show “Today,” mingling with our conversation and your smoke in May’s nostrils as she handled her cereal, multiplied us into one substance and I wanted to tell you that the Gypsy Woman’s Osmotic Interport theory but it was too long a tale and I didn’t, words towed me toward and give me, if not foresight, maybe – so, old hard perspectives (like when we met by Buck’s, which I stupid boring cow though good goose now recall was not the first time I mentioned Plante’s friend’s perspective, it came up over my phone in April, fool that I -) vanish in new sweet (plain ungrounded) si-mul-ta-ne-ities of time place side-by-side-by-thing-by thigh-by calf-by
Granted, this is probably the densest paragraph in the entire book, but there will be readers who will find they have probably wandered into the wrong novel and who will undoubtedly require an extra ounce or two of determination to stick with Hind’s Kidnap. But the rewards are there for the persistent and open reader. Just don’t expect to look for them in the usual places. As KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt said in a fascinating video conversation at Cornell University:”A book is there to make your life more difficult. The greatest books …made it harder for me to live.”
By the way, last month I wrote about McElroy’s 1998 novel The Letter Left to Me, unaware that the seed for that book lies buried in Hind’s Kidnap, where Hind tells us of “a letter sent to me,” a letter that leads to some of the same outcomes as in the novel written twenty-nine years later. Ironically, the content of the letter is quoted at length – if not in full – in Hind’s Kidnap, where it is nothing more than the subject of a passing memory. But in The Letter,a book entirely dedicated to what happens when the narrator receives that letter, McElroy never permits us to read the letter in its entirety. Just as in Hind’s Kidnap, where the details of the kidnapping aren’t explained until more than two hundred pages into the novel, McElroy forces the reader to circle round and round the central mystery, without fully glimpsing it. Such the the special territory of Joseph McElroy.