Kirk Curnutt (b. Nov 15, 1964 – Lincoln, NE)
Breathing Out the Ghost by Kirk Curnutt is classified as a noir thriller and is set (mostly) in Indiana. Curnutt is the author of eleven books of fiction and criticism. Breathing Out the Ghost was named Best Fiction in the Indiana Center for the Book’s 2008 Best Books of Indiana Competition. It also won a bronze IPPY from the Independent Publishers Association and was a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Awards. To read more about the author and his work, visit the author’s website.
I finished reading this book on January 11th and can highly recommend it (read my review).
Look for Kirk Curnutt’s second novel in the Fall of 2009: Dixie Noir.
Many thanks to Kirk Curnutt for providing (below) a wonderful meditation about missing children.
Guest Post by Kirk Curnutt
For a writer, a plot is always an allegory of something else. Whether it’s a love story or a coming-of-age tale or a war novel, the surface events, as important as they are to first engaging the audience and then hopefully pleasing them with dramatic development, are really only the question marks at the end of deeper questions. Over the past thirty years, the missing child novel has become its own genre; most recently, there’s been Charles Bock’s much publicized Beautiful Children and Stuart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing, which to my liking is as beautiful and contemplative a novel as you can hope for. In many cases, books like Stuart’s or what is arguably the first of this modern wave—Beth Gutcheon’s Still Missing (1981) —are about the procedural process of the search. They are about the social crisis of abduction and the media circuses such unfortunate incidents often become. It’s no accident that over the same thirty years that these books have become increasingly common, we’ve been audience to the search for Etan and Chandra and Natalie and Caylee. A missing child is a story, and the anxiety that it prompts is our awareness that while not all stories end happily, some don’t ever end period. A vast majority of real-life missing children, sadly, are never found. If their cases are lucky enough to gain attention, they just sort of go on until a new media obsession replaces them. The concern this plot poses then is how we can possibly live amid mysteries we aren’t able to solve.
To me, that powerlessness became an opportunity to explore a slightly different worry than most missing child novels do. (At least, that’s what I had to tell myself to finish writing my book; there’s nothing worse than beginning a novel and then realizing that there are already many, many ones with the same general storyline). About two-thirds of the way through Breathing Out the Ghost, there’s a chapter when the main female character, Sis Pruitt, meets the private detective Robert Heim, who is trying to bring home the Ahab-like father, Colin St. Claire, from his impossible quest for his son. This was the place, I knew, where I’d have to articulate for the reader what I was trying to say a missing child means to me. On the one hand, it was an interesting conversation to write because I was aware Heim was stepping slightly out of character. I mean, here is a very principled, strategic action guy getting all talky. But that was the overall point: his experience with St. Claire’s anguish exposes him to something that he can’t comprehend within his usual frame of reference. At the risk of looking pretentious, please allow me to quote myself. This is Heim speaking to Sis Pruitt about St. Claire:
When he first came to me about this case, I didn’t want anything to do with it, because I thought I’d heard it all before. I’d seen a million stories, books, and movies about lost children. They always bothered me, because I thought their appeal was too easy. I mean, they’d take someone and put them through the most horrible thing you can go through, which is losing a child. The whole point seemed to be to show how well this person could survive, how he or she could be bloody but unbowed and transcend all the agony. I guess that’s supposed to be uplifting, you know, but I found them underhandedly sentimental, slightly obscene. It’s all that faith in human endurance stuff. I believe in that, don’t get me wrong. But those stories struck me as self-congratulation, as us slapping ourselves on the back. They wanted to tell us that even when we’re at our most vulnerable, when we have to live with the reality that we can’t protect ourselves and our kids from everything that might happen to them, we can still do it, still go on. Still find some reason to be.
“After meeting Collie, I don’t think that way. I realize now that a missing child speaks to something deeper in us, something harder to abide. It’s that original loss, the inherited absence we’re made to live with. We can’t say quite what it is. We only know it as that sense of something missing, something having gone before we got on the scene. We won’t get it back because we’ve never had it, you know?”
What does all that stuff about ‘original loss’ and ‘inherited absence’ mean? What is that ‘something’ in the ‘something having gone before we got on the scene’? Honestly, I could never really quite define it, other than I was aware that it was the obverse of the motif of orphanhood that was running through the book. One of my big influences in creating the character of St. Claire was a book by Lawrence Thompson called Melville’s Quarrel with God, which I read twenty-five years ago when it was already thirty years old, but it helped me understand why Ahab is such a powerfully attractive tragic figure. In a very reductive way, the mad captain is the child standing up to the absentee father figure, God, who has gotten out of Dodge after casting his charge into that cruel Old Testament world of marauding white whales. (And I mean this more in a mythic than religious sense; I don’t want to offend anyone’s faith). In my mind, a missing child reverses those feelings of abandonment. It’s what the authority figure feels when he discovers that what he thought was his omnipotence—his power to protect a child—was a delusion of grandeur.
Of course, a lot of that last sentence is a literary conceit, full of overstatement. I have a twenty-two year-old son whom I’ve managed to get to adulthood through no great ingenuity or insight, just lots of trial and error. Every time a new missing child story breaks, however, I find myself going back to the scene of his birth. I can remember seeing him for the first time, all pink and vulnerable, and being overwhelmed by the sense of responsibility. It made me realize just how young and dumb I was—a twenty-two year-old college senior who was himself a child born on his own father’s twenty-second birthday. Who was I to co-make a baby? It suddenly made me realize the vanity we’re susceptible to as parents. I’ve tried in the time since (not always successfully) to be humble about fatherhood and respect other parents’ vulnerabilities, which isn’t something that Nancy Grace can say as she whips moral fables out of other people’s tragedies. In the end, it’s not surprise that stories of missing children should be powerfully affecting as they unfortunately are commonplace. They teach us to appreciate that our world doesn’t always bend to the hammer of our forging, that there’s a deceptive sense of control we shouldn’t want to get back—
Because we’ve never had it, you know?
by Wendy Robards
Breathing Out the Ghost centers around the disturbing crime of child abduction and missing children. This subject is one of which I am passionate. Years before I became a Physical Therapist I worked with abused and molested children – and that experience framed the way I view those who commit crimes against children. It is the one area of crime in which I think there should be a first strike law.
Nearly eleven years ago, I became involved in Search and Rescue – first with my canine partner Caribou as a member of the nonprofit California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), and later as a certified Tracker I and member of the Jeep Patrol with my county Search and Rescue team. Although our searches are not limited to children, it is the search for a child which generates the most anxiety and sense of emergency. Children are some of the most vulnerable members of our society, and when a child goes missing it seems to stir up great emotion: fear, anger, righteousness, grief. Kirk Curnutt captures all those emotions in his book Breathing Out the Ghost.
There are many organizations which reach out to parents of missing children, as well as those focused on finding missing persons (including children). Perhaps the most well-known organization is The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. This organization encourages volunteers from around the country to be involved in their Poster Partner Program and Weblink Program. Helping to solve missing children cases is only a click away.
Sadly, many missing children fall prey to sexual predators. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has a program called Operation Predator which “is a comprehensive initiative designed to protect young people from child pornographers, alien smugglers, human traffickers, and other predatory criminals.” By clicking on a State, you may access that State’s registry for sex offenders. This database helps parents be aware of dangerous persons living near them. The U.S. Department of Justice has a similar site where “interested members of the public have access to and may search participating state Website public information regarding the presence or location of offenders who, in most cases, have been convicted of sexually violent offenses against adults and children and certain sexual contact and other crimes against victims who are minors. The public can use this Website to educate themselves about the possible presence of such offenders in their local communities.“
There are many, many organizations set up to assist families of missing children and adults. Below are just a few organizations I discovered in a Google Search:
Child Search Ministries – A Christian ministry which includes prayer requests and an online Child Search database.
The Committee for Missing Children Inc. – A parent advocacy group which produces and distributes billions of images of missing children worldwide. This organization serves as a clearinghouse for information and the laws about missing children.
Klass Kids Foundation – Founded by Mark Klass, the father of a murdered child, the Foundation’s mission is to “stop crimes against children.”
The Doe Network – An international volunteer organization dedicated to assisting Law Enforcement in solving cold cases related to missing persons. An important part of this organization are the volunteers who work on-line to help solve cases.
Novels like Breathing Out the Ghost are disturbing because they are all too real. It is not easy to put such a book aside without thinking of the thousands of missing children (and adults) all over the world. There are many ways to help. Most organizations dedicated to missing children and adults are nonprofit and appreciate donations. Something as simple as posting a banner on your website raises awareness or may help solve a case. Finally, volunteers are always needed on the local and state level to assist law enforcement as part of Search and Rescue. Contacting your County Sheriff’s office is one way to get information about the needs in your own community.