Thursday, January 10, 2013

Flight 901 to Antarctica is three hours late: Departure Lounge by Chad Taylor

The Ponsonby Loung Billiards Hall 
was not a  rough place.
Opening to chapter one of
Departure Lounge
by Chad Taylor
If you can learn about a culture from reading its fiction, particularly its crime fiction, what can a reader learn about life in New Zealand from Chad Taylor's haunting novel Departure Lounge?  In spite of the novel's overall air of gritty urban realism, what one would expect in a novel with a burglar as its hero, New Zealand seems like a village, a big city writ small.  It seems like everyone knows everyone somehow. Sort of like San Francisco.

Greg, the burglar hero of the novel, keeps running into people he used to know.  One night, while robbing several apartments in a large new building, he discovers the home he has broken into belongs to the parents of a girl he knew in high school.  This unexpected reunion is what gives Greg away to the detectives investigating the burlary.

    "I mean the intruder had time on his hands," Harry said.  "Nobody had seen him. He wasn't interrupted.  He had the run of the place.  But he didn't steal anything from the May's house.  In fact, he made a point of stopping in the room Mr. and Mrs. May kept for their missing daughter.  They had all her things there.  Her clothes, her dolls.  Her school photos: everything arranged like a shrine. And the burglar stood there.  He touched the bed, he ran his hands across the wardrobe."
     "You have his fingerprints?" I said.
     Harry shook his head.  He wore gloves.  But this was an old couple's place: there was dust on everything.  On the clothes, the furniture.  The photographs.  The burglar touched the photograph of Caroline's school class,"  Harry said.  "First he touched Caroline's face, and then he touched yours."

Greg had already begun breaking into people's homes when he was in school, but this had not bothered Caroline.  In fact, she had been intrigued by it.  The two had been something of a secret item prior to her disappearance.  One day, she vanished never to be heard from or seen again by anyone in spite of the year-long police investigation.  Now, many years and several stints in prison later, someone has begun leaving notes inside Greg's home, notes like the copy of the missing poster featuring Caroline's face that went up all over the city in the days following her disappearance.  Someone who seems to want to connect Greg with a case everyone considered closed long ago.

While no one ever really found out what happened to Caroline, everyone came to the same conclusion about her.  She must have been on flight 901 to the Antarctic which crashed outside of Chirstchurch a year after she vanished killing everyone on board.  It's hard to imagine today, but at the time it was impossible to determine exactly who was on a particular flight.  People could buy plane tickets without leaving their name by paying cash.  They could purchase a ticket and then give it away or sell it to someone else who could then board a flight without anyone ever knowing they were on the plane.  Since not all of those on-board flight 901 could be identified, everyone gradually came to believe that one of them had to have been Caroline.  Why she was on the flight; they didn't know.

The case seemed settled.  Everyone moved on.  Except for Caroline's parents who kept a shrine to her in their new home, for Harry the police investigator who lost his career over her case and for Greg, the secret boyfriend who one night, years later found himself standing again in Caroline's bedroom.

All this says very little in particular about life in New Zealand, but it does say something about life in general.  In particular, Departure Lounge says something about the need to find an ending.  Those caught up in the story of Caroline's disappearance have no solid reason to believe she was on flight 901, but it makes for such a neat ending to her story that they all accept it more-or-less.  Until someone begins sending out long forgotten missing posters suggesting that whatever happened to Caroline, she wasn't on flight 901, and Departure Lounge turns out to be about how important it is for every story to find an ending.

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