Review: The More They Disappear by Jesse Donaldson

The More They Disappear by Jesse Donaldson takes us to the front lines of the battle against small-town drug abuse in an unnerving tale of addiction, loss, and the battle to overcome the darkest parts of ourselves (Available August 2, 2016).

I grew up in the 80's during the “Just Say No” era, so the earliest crime fiction stories about the drug war in America that I saw and read were morally black-and-white tales about maverick cops fighting to bring down evil drug cartels. It wasn't until I got much older that I started to understand that when it came to stories about drugs, cops and criminals are only a small part of a much larger story—crime fiction that examined America's drug problem through many different lenses was much more powerful, haunting, and true. 

I'm talking, of course, about television shows like The Wire, novels like Don Winslow's The Power of the Dog and it's sequel The Cartel, and comic books like Jason Aaron and R.M Guera's Native American crime saga, Scalped. These stories feature the perspectives of many different types of characters. Instead of focusing on cops and the criminals they pursue, they look at an entire community. And, fortunately, Jesse Donaldson's new novel, The More They Disappear, is another hard-hitting and haunting story that tackles crime and drugs with a community approach.

In the novel, Donaldson takes readers back to 1998 and introduces them to the town of Marathon, Kentucky, a small municipality where hope is on the decline and a different kind of drug problem is on the rise—the illegal trade and use of prescription pills like Oxycontin. Here, one police officer describes the nature of the problem they're wrestling with and how it compares to the drug wars in other towns:

“We’ve been fighting that shit for a year or two now. Seems like every other person I arrest is hopped up on pills. I asked my brother who’s a cop out in Tucson if they have the same problem but he told me they have the cartels and we have Purdue and Pfizer.”

That’s Harlan Dupree, one of my favorite characters in the novel and the chief deputy of Marathon's sheriff. He suddenly finds himself rocketed into the spotlight when the sheriff, Lew Mattock, Sr., is murdered. 

What I love about Harlan is he's a person who nobody really sees. He's a caring and highly capable cop who's haunted by tragedy. He’s lived in the shadow of a less capable sheriff, who he later discovers is not the shining example of law and order everyone thought he was.

Harlan’s a likable everyman that’s easy to root for as he tries to solve his predecessor's murder and come to terms with what kind of man the slain sheriff was and the role he played in the drug trade that fed off Marathon's hopelessness. As I was reading, I pictured a young Steve Buscemi in the role of Harlan.

Harlan's perspective is just one of several that Donaldson follows as he examines the fallout the murder of Marathon's sheriff has on the citizens of the town and the people caught up in the Oxycontin trade that plagues it. The other characters include: the Sheriff's son, Lewis, Jr., who runs a security business and has no idea what kind of man his father really was; Mark Gaines, the son of Marathon's chief doctor and drug lord; and Mark's girlfriend, Mary Jane Findley.

Mary Jane is perhaps the most heartbreaking and tragic character in The More They Disappear. Early on, we're given a haunting account of what led her into the world illegal prescription drugs:

Pills were her ticket out of Marathon. Mark called Oxy a “miracle” drug, and the first time he gave Mary Jane one and taught her to grind it to dust, she came to understand the meaning of the word. Oxy wasn’t like pot, which made her paranoid, or booze, which made her sloppy. It didn’t skew the world or make things funny; it offered separation. Separation from her father’s passive-aggressive insults and her mother’s chain-smoking sadness. Separation from the fat girl in the mirror. Separation from a life that stalled out in high school. Oxy offered oblivion.

Over the course of The More They Disappear, Mary Jane and Donaldson's other point-of-view characters have a number of fascinating exploits that bring them into contact with an eclectic band of supporting players and take them to many interesting locales, including the nearby University of Kentucky, a genuine riverboat casino, a rundown trailer park, and the “dirt track.”

The dirt track was the brainchild of a petty criminal named Leland Abbot. After inheriting his father’s spread, Leland turned the property into an ATV park by building an oval track and cutting trails through the woods for off-roaders. It was the closest thing to a legit enterprise he’d ever dreamt up and the most happening nightspot in Finley County. He charged parking fees and looked the other way when underage kids brought in beer.

The More They Disappear makes great use of a number of diverse characters, perspectives, and parts of a town to tell a gripping and powerful tale. It's the best kind of crime fiction, in that it tells a story with some fun twists and turns and also illustrates some powerful and painful truths about the human condition.


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Dave Richards covers all things Marvel Comics for the Eisner Award-winning website Comic Book Resources and his book reviews and other musings can be found at his blog Pop Culture Vulture.

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