A TV anchor haunted by loss, looking to help
This superbly written novel begins with deceptive simplicity and humor, and quietly blossoms into a precisely observed story about loss, aging, friendship, and reinvention. There is a terrible secret at its heart, although “The News Where You Are’’ is by no means a traditional mystery. This is Catherine O’Flynn’s second novel, after the widely praised “What Was Lost.’’ Her writing has unmistakable authenticity, delicately balancing comedy and tragedy. It’s a difficult trick, one that she has mastered with impressive grace.
Frank Allcroft is a news presenter, the coanchor of “Heart of England Reports’’ in Birmingham. His bad jokes and terrible puns have made him a popular figure of fun, a local celebrity called upon to preside at ribbon-cuttings. His acid-tongued coanchor, Julia, reminds him daily of what he already knows: that he’s a clown and the nonstories they cover — a canine gym, a man who discovered a 30-foot hole in his garden and somehow didn’t fall into it — are rubbish.
Beneath his cheerful exterior Frank is thoughtful and rather melancholy. In middle age, he finds himself thinking more and more about the past, about death and change. His domineering, distant father was the architect of a number of monumental buildings that replaced old Victorian structures, redefining the city’s postwar landscape. Now the buildings his father designed are being demolished to make way for new construction. Frank’s depressed and difficult mother, Maureen, has lately moved to Evergreen, an assisted-living community. Unlike Frank, she isn’t disturbed by the razing of her late husband’s work. His father, she tells him pointedly, was always focused on the future, not the past. “So let the bulldozers come,’’ she says. “I can’t really bring myself to shed a tear.’’
Lately Frank has been haunted by another loss, the recent death of his friend and mentor Phil Smethway, a glamorous national television personality. Phil was 78, but seemingly ageless, with his perma-tan, his facelifts, his young wife, his obsession with appearing youthful and “keeping up.’’ He was run down by a car while jogging on a long, straight country road. Frank suspects there was something fishy about the accident, but seems to be alone in his suspicions.
Frank keeps a notebook to record news stories about people who die alone, forgotten, abandoned. He visits strangers’ graves, leaves flowers on their doorsteps. It is, his wife Andrea declares, “a crap hobby.’’ Frank takes it upon himself to attend the funerals of the forgotten. Sometimes he’s the only person there, apart from the overworked coroner’s assistant, who occasionally asks him to help her locate elusive next of kin. “Maybe if I did something tangible to help for once, then I could let it go,’’ he tells Andrea. “Don’t turn weird, Frank,’’ she replies.
Because his face is familiar from television Frank has no trouble persuading people to talk to him. Looking into the life of a solitary man named Michael Church, dead on a park bench for two days before anyone noticed, he stumbles across a clue that proves crucial to understanding what happened to his old friend Phil.
O’Flynn has created some striking secondary characters, among them Cyril Wilks, a bibulous freelance writer who supplies the excruciating one-liners that have made Frank the subject of a website called www.unfunniestmanongodsearth.com. Phil appears in flashbacks chiding the introspective Frank, “You’ll never understand, will you? It’s only the outside that’s visible. That’s all people care about, mate.’’ Phil’s second wife, flashy young Michelle, and his first wife, straightforward and unpretentious Irene, an 80-ish resident of Evergreen, add to Frank’s understanding of his old friend in unexpected ways. And Frank’s 8-year old daughter, Mo, keeps yanking her father into the present with her cheerful chatter and odd enthusiasms.
Diane White, a freelance writer in Georgetown, Ky., can be reached at email@example.com.