Lit­tle boy van­ishes in chill­ing ‘Bad Man’

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Brian Truitt

Dathan Auer­bach’s pitch-black “Bad Man,” a hor­ror thriller that preys on fa­mil­ial fears, is a study of the lonely ex­is­tence of a so­cial out­cast whose life turns on one tragic day in his child­hood.

Auer­bach keeps the reader on un­set­tling ground with this ni­hilis­tic tale (Dou­ble­day, 400 pp., ★★★★) about a hard-luck north Flor­ida young­ster named Ben and his ob­ses­sive ef­forts to find his brother Eric.

At 15, Ben lost sight of 3-year-old Eric for a few fate­ful min­utes in a lo­cal gro­cery store, and the lit­tle guy van­ished. Over­weight and phys­i­cally ham­pered by a bum leg (the re­sult of a child­hood ac­ci­dent), Ben is still look­ing for Eric five years later when he gets a job work­ing nights at that same gro­cery on the stock crew.

His fam­ily needs the money, though nei­ther of his par­ents ap­proves, es­pe­cially his step­mother, Dei­dra, who pines and sings for her lost lit­tle boy 24/7.

The store gives Ben a real sense of com­pan­ion­ship that he’s been miss­ing most of his life – he grows close to a bunch of co-work­ers, from ag­ing baker lady Bev­erly to wild child Marty, whose own back­woods fam­ily in­cludes a dru­gad­dict mom and her abu­sive boyfriend.

But his work also is a haven for dark­ness: a mon­strous card­board baler lives up to its dan­ger­ous po­ten­tial, Eric’s beloved plush rhino Stampie mys­te­ri­ously shows it­self, Ben’s shady boss couldn’t be any less help­ful, and sym­bols start ap­pear­ing that seem to have a con­nec­tion with Eric’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

Ben is sur­rounded by enig­matic fig­ures who are just as much a part of the mys­tery as what hap­pened to lit­tle Eric, yet the pro­tag­o­nist is an un­re­li­able sort him­self. He be­gins to dis­trust his own mem­o­ries as the sit­u­a­tion around him spi­rals out of con­trol, though Ben’s righ­teous com­pul­sion keeps one en­gaged in his mis­sion.

That’s pretty im­por­tant con­sid­er­ing how in­sid­i­ously dis­turb­ing “Bad Man” gets: Hope is de­fined in one pas­sage as “an anes­thetic,” “a sneaky nar­cotic” and “the one hor­ror that lives in us.”

De­spite some gal­lows hu­mor and the oc­ca­sional male bond­ing, the novel is wickedly ef­fec­tive in cre­at­ing a feel­ing of doom. Cop­ing with a miss­ing child is, luck­ily, some­thing most will never ex­pe­ri­ence. But Auer­bach paints a chill­ing por­trait in which it’s easy to imag­ine the pained con­fu­sion of a father, the haunted long­ing of a mother, and the never-end­ing guilt and in­no­cence lost of a boy for­ever changed by a mo­ment of ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity.

De­spite late plot twists that make the story un­nec­es­sar­ily con­vo­luted, “Bad Man” de­liv­ers an un­ex­pected gut punch and saves its dark­est deeds for an un­nerv­ing end.

JAMIE STEPHENS

Dathan Auer­bach

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