The world sometimes feels like such a small place. If you Google the name Eric Emery in hopes of learning more about the diver featured in the prologue of Wil S. Hylton’s Vanished, the first picture that appears is that of a man wearing a dark blue diving suit, his rugged skin red and leathery from the sun, his beard mostly brown but beginning to show white and grey hairs, his forehead highlighted by deep lines that make it obvious this is a man who had spent a great amount of time frowning (perhaps as the sunlight violently hit his face every time he returned from the depths of the ocean).
Most peculiar of all are his blue eyes, which don’t seem aware that they’re the focus of a camera lens, his gaze elsewhere as he searches for something in the horizon. Emery became known for his deep sea expeditions in the Pacific Ocean where he intended to find the remains of WWII planes lost in battle and in the photograph, taken in the year 2008, he has just embarked on a mission in the island of Palau, the event which is the center of Hylton’s attention.
Yet what remains perhaps most haunting about the image of Emery is the name of the photographer who took it: Tim Hetherington, a war photographer who would go on to direct an Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo (2010), and only a few years later would lose his life in the midst of a battle while doing his job. Unknowingly he would become a victim of war like those he captured Emery trying to find in his enigmatic picture. It’s this notion of senseless tragedy and mystifying loss that make Vanished seem so promising and then have it deliver so little.
Hylton, who contributes to The New York Times Magazine, had all the elements to create a WWII classic as he set on a mission to chronicle the journey taken by diver Pat Scannon as he became obsessed with finding the remains of a specific airplane lost in the fall of 1944. “The first time Pat Scannon went to Palau, he wasn’t sure what he was searching for” he writes, “he wasn’t even sure why he’d come.”
Hylton explains how medical researcher Scannon went on an unexpected trip and ended up discovering his true calling in life, after a failed attempt at finding a missing WWII war vessel, sunken by a then-Naval ensign George H.W. Bush (which some argue would’ve made him lose the Presidential election). Hylton keeps tracing back interesting trivia about Scannon, the author sets the one issue that keeps his book from being completely effective: it’s just too interested in too many things at the same time.
Even if we are told that the main story is that of Scannon’s search for a missing bomber, with each paragraph Hylton seems to stray farther from his original purpose and thus, each chapter drags. Hylton’s intentions are good, as it’s obvious that he became enthralled by Scannon’s discoveries, but it doesn’t take us long to wonder what did the introduction with Emery had to do with what we’re reading a few chapters later, or how the history of Scannon’s company and his professional life have any relevance when it comes to his interviews with the son of one of the men who went missing in action during WWII.
Hylton wants to cover too many things, all of which are unarguably interesting, but none of which click with each other in the grand scheme of things. He’s a talented writer whose profiles of the missing soldiers tend to break one’s heart (especially when described with the “jeez/golly” sense of innocence one tends to associate with the young soldiers who lost their lives in WWII), but then he abuses his cinematic touches and inserts flashbacks and flashforwards when we least expect him to and where they are least needed.
Reading Vanished sometimes feels like listening to a storyteller with serious attention deficit, who wants to tell you so much that he forgets the path he intended to take from the get go. This makes the book feel more like an assortment of WWII anecdotes than a single work united by common themes. Why, for example, can’t he just concentrate on the fact that the number of lives lost in the Pacific Ocean during WWII was larger than the number of troops lost in the Vietnam War? Or why can’t he focus on the struggles of the Doyle family as they came to terms with the fact that the patriarch didn’t abandon them as they thought, but actually lost his life fighting for his country?
There are so many unfinished stories hidden in this book. It’s frustrating to think that none of them truly lead us anywhere. Hylton writes passages that are easy to admire but lack a sense of true purpose. It’s as if he’s trying to use his stylistic approach to perpetuate the infinite confusion left behind when someone you love just disappears without a trace. If only that were the book’s purpose we’d be in the presence of a complex study of how the mind deals with grief, but in a novel that so often reminds us it wants to solve a mystery, it just feels like a long sad tease.