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Miss Me When I’m Gone

By Philip Stephens

Reviewed By Michael Carey

philip stephens

Philip Stephens, an award winning poet and author of the poetry collection, The Determined Days, once said, “At their best, short stories contain the germ of a novel, and there’s no reason poems can’t do that as well.” The stories told in his acclaimed poetry seem to have developed, grown, and flourished in his first novel, Miss Me When I’m Gone.

Stephens presents to the reader the beautifully described image of the declining town of Apogee, Missouri and its surroundings, speckled with colorful and amusing characters that add levity even as they propel the story.

Miss Me When I’m Gone centers on the Harper family.  Their youngest son, Cyrus, is a folk musician without recent success. A review pinned up on the freezer box in his childhood home describes his style of music as well as the emotional weight he carries: 

“The songs of Cyrus Harper are dreamscapes where people stuck in dismal lives stay stuck, where misfortune strikes, and supernatural forms appear. Characters haunted by the past keep turning to face what plagues them, though what they confront are their own grave, which they see have not been kept clean. The songs are tinny and gritty, as if cobbled from Child ballads, country blues, and mail-order instruments. Mostly, they are grim. It is a wonder this singer-song writer can get out of bed in the morning.”

He is called home to see his waning mother, Ruth, before she passes by his brother Isaac, a pragmatic, yet envious, realtor,. As we learn more about Cyrus, we discover he is bitter, stubborn, and haunted by the past. He still searches for his long-lost sister, Saro, dreams of his first love, and watches the decline of the folk music he grew up with, all the while burying his grief in the bottom of a whiskey glass.

Cyrus has sought after his sister for years, searching for the sound that he feels will complete him. Stephens’ metered revelations about the Harper’s past shows there is more to Saro, to her relationship with Cyrus, and to the faceted history of their family. They are a haunted family. The choices Ruth and her husband, Ott make, plague their children. The music within Ruth’s soul, which she tries to deny, manifests itself physically, and ignoring her destiny troubles her to the grave.

Cyrus learns and revisits more of the past than he would want, thinking, “…the past lay like land on the far side of a bridge you crossed over many times until the bridge collapsed and you could not tell which side you were on.” But with all this knowledge, as he is forced to face himself, his mother’s ghosts, and the road before him, which side of the bridge will he end up on?

When he returns to Apogee, Cyrus is greeted at home by Sheriff Darby, his closest friend.  Darby pulls strings and throws around his position to procure Cyrus a paying gig at a bawdy club, where he meets Newbern, a knowledgeable DJ, who can relate to the life and struggles Cyrus faces.

Meanwhile, the story of a scarred, aging young woman, Margaret Bowman (or Delilah, or Eve, or any of the women she claims to be) runs parallel to Cyrus’ journey. She is on the run, trying to get to her daughter. She has travelled far and was getting very close until she found trouble in the woods around Apogee. Accosted by horny high school football players, hunted by an aged hick militia, followed by the town’s deaf-mute, Randy, and fighting off injury and the elements, Margaret’s story is both troubling and uplifting.

Margaret and Cyrus are on opposite sides of the figurative abandoned tracks that run into Apogee. One has been running to the past physically but away from it mentally. The other moves far from the past but keeps it firmly in mind. It’s a rare story that can touch the reader uniquely, despite it’s unique content. Stephens displays a skill that all writers strive for---the ability to accurately portray the human condition. Hope and hopelessness, fear and courage, and care and neglect run simultaneously in each character, illustrating the duel nature of man.

A musician himself, Stephens takes you into the world of folk music in such a way that you find yourself wishing to hear the songs and experience the culture from which Cyrus learned to play the fiddle for yourself. He has created a gripping novel, and even when the story slows down, the minor characters and, at times, nature itself, are called on to carry the story. Stephens has written a novel that illuminates the slow decline and degradation of Middle America, a topic he clearly feels passionately about. The heavy subject matter and overtones are supported with action, suspense, and personal journeys you don’t want to miss. I recommend Miss Me When I’m Gone to anyone who is unafraid of facing an honest story that takes you deep into the world of struggling musicians, desperate mothers, meth addicts, sinful preachers, and an array of successes and failures that make up the realistic characters Stephens has created.

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