It's the mid-1960s on suburban Long Island, New York. Lyndon Johnson is president and the adults must know what's going on in Vietnam, but the war has not yet impinged on the consciousness of the average kid. The Dick Van Dyke Show is still popular and rock and roll is just beginning to make its presence felt. Cars have big fins and people don't necessarily lock their doors at night. Kids hoard their money so they'll have something to spend when Mister Softee, the local ice cream man, comes driving by, bells ringing.
For the unnamed sixth-grade narrator of The Shadow Year things could be better. His parents' marriage is still intact, but that's pretty much all you can say about it. Dad's working three jobs to make ends meet and is rarely around. Money is so tight that all they can afford is powdered milk. Mom works too. She's home more than Dad, but she's also drunk a lot. Sometimes she screams at Dad and hits him, though the kids do their best to pretend it isn't happening. When Dad's gone and Mom's passed out on the couch (invariably with the complete Sherlock Holmes on her chest), they sometimes go next door to the attached apartment where their grandparents live. There are three children in the family. Older brother Jim is a smart-ass, but a pretty good guy. The narrator, who's basically what a later generation will call a nerd (though far from a good student), can count on his older brother to stand up for him against bullies and they spend a lot of time together. Little sister Mary, though, is a weirdo. The school has her in special ed, but can't decide whether she's slow or gifted. Mary has a talent for math that borders on the savant, but most of her verbal responses are cryptic at best. She also has a very rich fantasy life and spends an awful lot of her time being a boy named Mickey who has several invisible friends who play school in the family basement. The narrator loves reading adventures novels about the heroic Perno Shell, though he can't figure out why each volume in the series has a different author or why they all smell of a particular brand of pipe tobacco. Jim has devoted his time to creating Botch Town, a scale model of their entire neighborhood, built in the basement on a large board that was originally intended for a model train, complete with tiny figurines that represent the neighbors.
Late in August of what the narrator dubs the Shadow Year, strange things begin to happen in the neighborhood. Charlie Edison, the weakest boy in the sixth grade, disappears without a trace and his mother goes mad with grief. There are rumors of a prowler who is reputed to be looking in windows at night. The school librarian goes gradually crazy and one evening a student breaks all of the school's windows for no particular reason. The narrator notices a large white car in the neighborhood and then realizes that it seems to be following him. Worse still, the driver, whom he nicknames Mr. White, uses a pipe tobacco he recognizes. The narrator's teacher, Mr. Krapp, tells him that he has to write a five-page report on Greece that's due the day after Halloween. Later, after a once-in-a-lifetime blizzard, elderly Mr. Barzita is found dead in a snow drift outside his house, apparently run over by a snowplow. Then the school's janitor disappears and Mr. White is hired as his replacement. The brothers meet a strange teenager named Ray Halloway, whose parents left town more than a year ago. Ray, who has apparently been living in an enormous and mysterious subbasement under the school, claims to know everything about Mr. White.
Meanwhile, the narrator has noticed that the increasingly odd events in town are being mirrored by similar events in his brother Jim's scale model, Botch Town. When the prowler is reported at someone's window, the tiny figurine that Jim has created to represent him turns out to have been placed next to the appropriate miniature house before the fact. Other figurines inexplicably begin to show up in appropriate places as well. The brothers soon discover that their sister Mary is responsible for this apparent miracle, though she can't explain how she does it. The numbers tell her, she says. And then the narrator realizes that Mary's placed the figurine of the now long-gone Charlie Edison in the middle of Botch Town's version of the local lake.
Jeffrey Ford loves the oblique approach. His novels and short stories invariably use genre conventions, but almost never settle comfortably within generic boundaries. He loves to suggest secrets, but frequently refuses to give answers. Ford sets up The Shadow Year as a mystery: who is Mr. White and why is he interested in our narrator? He eventually does provide an answer to the former question (one that manages to be simultaneously horrific, banal, and essentially irrelevant to the thrust of the story), but steadfastly refuses to answer the latter and much more vital question. He also sets the novel up as a tale of the supernatural—we have a villain with "powers," as our narrator repeatedly assures us—but nothing is ever confirmed. Mr. White may be supernaturally endowed, but we never find out for sure. The narrator's sister, Mary, probably is psychic as well as a savant and a borderline autist, but then, by the end of the novel, she's turned inexplicably normal. And then there's the ghost—well, I assume he's a ghost, and I can even guess his reason for haunting the neighborhood, but, again, nothing is ever confirmed.
The annoying thing about The Shadow Year, for some people, I suspect, will be the loose ends, the novel's stubborn indeterminacy. Clues abound, and some of them are damn weird, but few of them ever lead anywhere. Ford simply refuses to tell us whether or not Mr. Barzita's death was an accident, or why the librarian went crazy, or why Mr. White has dozens of bottles of Mr. Clean in his garage, or why the local high school has that gigantic subbasement (it sure as heck isn't a bomb shelter, as someone in the novel suggests). The book reminds me in some ways of "The Navidson Record" section of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, although Ford is a much less pyrotechnic writer, and in other ways of the work of the late, great ghost story writer Robert Aickman. Everything is literalized in The Shadow Year. We're not dealing with some damn metaphor or allegory. The things that happened, really happened. But what they mean, well, that's anyone's guess, and therein, I think, lies the novel's wonder.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.