'Vanished' Loses Its Reader

Reading Vanished sometimes feels like listening to a storyteller who wants to tell you so much that he forgets the original point.

Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II

Publisher: Riverhead
Length: 288 pages
Author: Wil S. Hylton
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-11

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.