On a rainy night, Dana Reynolds, a single mother and schoolteacher, is just trying to get home to her young son after a trying day. There’s an accident blocking traffic, and sheets of rain turn the taillights and emergency lights seen through the car window into a wet smear.
So when a figure with wild hair and a scraggly beard approaches at a red light, she pretends to ignore him and hits the gas — only to realize, a split second later, that the figure is her husband, Warren, who was presumed dead nine years before.
But by the time she can get back to the intersection, the homeless man begging for money is gone. Was he really Warren?
That’s the premise of “Recognition,” a new novel by O.H. Bennett, who lives in Northern Virginia. The book explores a number of themes in 200 short pages: homelessness, loneliness and, above all, the unreliability of both eyewitness recognition and long-term memory — as Bennett puts it, “how difficult it was to hold images in your head that time had decided you no longer needed.”
Dana and Warren had been quarreling the night he disappeared; their car tumbled down an embankment and plunged into a river. She was rescued; his body was never found.
Warren’s mother and his headstrong sister, who were lukewarm on the marriage to begin with, held out hope he would be found alive. Dana had accepted his death long before; the then-pregnant widow needed the insurance money.
Against her mother-in-law’s wishes, she had Warren declared dead. But Dana never told his family the complete truth: There was a good reason Warren might have wanted to run away. Though she truly had believed he was dead, now, in an instant, she’s convinced she was wrong.
Haunted by what she thought she saw, Dana launches a secret search and meets Jessie. This homeless woman claims to be familiar with the person Dana saw, a man Jessie knows as Wendell.
Along the way, Dana also meets a stranger, Doug Peel, who begins to show up at the most opportune, and inopportune, times — to the point where she realizes she might have attracted a stalker.
This is a lot of material for such a slim book, but Bennett juggles it well most of the way. Dana’s strained relationship with Warren’s family is nicely drawn, and Bennett plots the twisty guessing game as to Warren/Wendell’s identity to suspenseful effect.
But the brevity of the story compromises some essential points. Dana, we’re told, has money problems, but they’re never really seen, and a schoolteacher would probably find it hard to get away for hours and hours over days and days away from her son to search for a homeless man.
An additional hundred pages of storytelling would have drawn out Dana’s character, Doug’s, too, while raising the stakes considerably and prolonging the essential mystery: Was the homeless man Dana’s husband — or was he a stranger, his features filled in by the fallible brain of a lonely and guilty widow?
Reviewed by Kevin Allman, who is the editor of the New Orleans alt-weekly Gambit.
Recognition, by O.H. Bennett (199 pages; Bolden; $15 paperback)