Title: Where Things Come Back
Author: Corey Whaley
Date Published: May 3rd, 2011
Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .
In the summer before Cullen's senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone's eating "Lazarus burgers." But as absurd as the town's carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.
While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax. (GoodReads)
Where Things Come Back is a very intelligent, beautifully written debut literary novel. Whaley has created two plotlines intricately woven together that will both surprise and entertain readers. In one plotline, readers get a first-person point of view of Cullen, who goes through different stages of grief as he tries to deal with his brother’s disappearance. In the second plotline, readers get a less concrete, third-person account of Benton and then Cabot, as they struggle to discover a way to change the world. Meanwhile, there is the giant Lazarus Woodpecker “flying around” in the background. Although it may appear that the story is about a small town and the return of a thought-to-be extinct bird, it is really not. It is a story is about zombies (just kidding…kinda). It is about a misguided obsession. It is about second chances. It is about Cullen and his relationship with his brother, his best friend, and his family.
Whaley does a great job with characterization. Though cynical at times, Cullen also showed hope and despair, presenting a well-rounded character. The reader was able to see his desire to get the heck out of his small town, his hatred for “that damn bird” and its overwhelming popularity, his sense of helplessness upon losing a brother. This helped create a closeness with Cullen that a reader should feel with the protagonist of a story. The brother dynamic was interesting because though Cullen was older than his brother, Gabriel is almost worshiped by Cullen. Gabriel is such an awesome character; it is easy to see why he is so respected by his older brother. Another character that I really enjoyed is Lucas, Cullen’s best friend. He brings an element of cheerfulness into the Witter’s home that masks his own hardships. Though Cullen may have been annoyed with him at times, he was very dependent upon Lucas’s friendship. As for the other plotline, I was not really sure what is going through the minds of Benton and Cabot. This intentional vagueness gives both characters an air of mystery that is essential to the plot. I have to admit I was very confused in the first couple chapters and I desperately was trying to make connections between the two plotlines. Reader, be patient and trust your author, because it is brilliantly executed.
I picked this novel up because Sasha (Sash & Em) invited me to come along to a YA book club and author visit in Alexandria, VA. Being unfamiliar with the author and book, I decided to give it a try. I am so glad I did! Corey Whaley is my new favorite author! Also known as the “woodpecker guy” (he even has a tattoo to match his nickname), Whaley is from a small town in Louisiana, off which Lily, AR is modeled. He is charming and witty—he kept us laughing throughout the book club. He noted that while there were components that are autobiographical, the similarities are becoming more apparent now, years after writing the book, than they were initially. An interesting fact is the story idea was inspired by a NPR interview with Whaley’s favorite folk singer, Sufjan Stevens, about a small farming town and the return of an extinct woodpecker. Listen to the interview here. Another interesting fact, the cover is designed to look like a concert poster. I liked the cover before, but knowing makes me appreciate it more! This novel is awesome! And I cannot wait for Whaley’s next novel (it has something to do with his favorite word, “defenestration”).
Go buy Where Things Come Back now! Also, check out Corey Whaley’s website and follow him on twitter @Corey_Whaley.
Here is the video Sufjan Stevens's "The Lord God Bird," the song that started Where Things Come Back.