The Lost and the Blind
Running Wild Press, 2023
hen living on the edge isn’t a choice, it isn’t really an edge—rather, it’s a state of dispossession. Such is the situation of Mark Hayes, the central character of Curtis Smith’s sixth novel, The Lost and the Blind. He’s a high school senior and caretaker to his junkie mother and her likewise addicted friend, whose infant child also requires Mark’s attentions. Mark is the sort of kid who “wasn’t destined for the world of little league practices and doctors’ appointments and getting to school on time.” His father is in prison, and Mark fits the profile of a likely candidate to follow in his footsteps.
But he is self-aware and chafes at the routine disrespect and indignities that his mother experiences, the profiling that exacerbates her woes. He wants nothing of it, or of The Patch, the drug-ridden neighborhood where he grew up, and where the rest of his community appears all too ready to consign him, to keep him “out of sight, out of mind.” Torn between loyalty to his mother and to self-preservation, Mark walks a fine line.
Smith’s earlier novel, Lovepain (2018), was narrated from the point-of-view of a husband dealing with his wife’s addictions. In The Lost and the Blind, Mark tells his own story, with the relative powerlessness and vulnerability of a teenager. Here, for instance, he considers his mother’s pain, and the price of her chosen remedy:
Only the needle lifts her from the tide. Each dose a rapture and rescue. Her first waking and last drifting thoughts a calculation of when she’ll fix again. Her greatest desire to shut out the voices of the present and past and have a final say-so in a life where she’s had none. But this erasing of the world is a sloppy affair, and in the process, she’s erased jobs and bank accounts and a man or two who could have been good to us. And when her eyes roll back and the needle slips from her fingers, I understand she’s erasing me too.
This passage is fairly representative. Stylistically, Smith favors short chapters and punchy sentences; he often elides verbs. Events move along briskly. At the same time, he allows space for introspection, for Mark’s awareness of the gravity of events.
And, for all the darkness, there are also moments of tenderness, of solidarity, as well as glimpses of a wider world of hope. Mark befriends a blind neighbor who awakens in him a deeper interiority; he does contract labor for Chief, who serves both as a father figure and as a source of cash, which, in light of the material realities of Mark’s world, where the refrigerator is often empty and meals get missed, is no small affair. He slowly develops a relationship with Kate, a girl in his class, despite the distractions of home that preclude any clichés of teen romance.
A particularly memorable section of The Lost and the Blind recounts Mark’s improvised Christmas and its harrowing aftermath, which includes a raid by ICE authorities, a snowstorm, and a visit to his father in prison. Mark’s choices, good and bad (“reason is a luxury”), are circumscribed by his hometown but they are also placed against a larger backdrop of an America at war abroad, with its news cycle of bombing missions and hostages. Military recruiters roam the hallways at Mark’s high school. Joining the army might be his only escape, even if it could thrust him into situations more violent than what goes down at The Patch.
Curtis Smith has created a poignant and complicated protagonist, whose plight goes far beyond a sentimental plea, like a 21st century Oliver Twist, for more soup. (Though there are occasions when he could certainly do with more soup.) In addition to the problems of material injustice, The Lost and the Blind also evinces a strong spiritual longing. Throughout the story, well-intentioned people (and some not so well-intentioned) try to appeal to Mark with formulas of piety or scripture, and, although these efforts don’t convince him, because they don’t jibe with his experience of the world, he appreciates their attraction, to those lucky enough to have known otherwise. His soul hungers.
I’m reminded of a pivotal scene in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, where a stingy vicar, who is the uncle of the young protagonist Philip Carey, makes a magnanimous show of offering him the top of a boiled egg. The boy would gladly eat the entire egg, but even in his stomach-growling disappointment, he wonders about his uncle, too, about what is the matter with the man, what makes him behave this way, what must ail his soul.
Smith conjures up an similarly powerful moment when Mark collects money for a contracting job at a doctor’s house. Serious personal problems over the holidays resulted in the job getting finished one day late.
He opens the envelope, and inside, a fanning of green, but before he hands it over, he removes two fifty-dollar bills.
“The work was promised to be done by the 30th. That was our agreement.“ He pockets the bills and hands me the envelope.
I hold the envelope. I think about the bills inside—and the ones he made a show of removing.
It’s not only about the money, though the money is very important to someone like Mark, who doesn’t have enough of it. The doctor has performed a territorial act, drawing a line, keeping people like him in his place. Later in the story, when Mark puts himself in risky circumstances, the action haunts him.
I can’t shake the image of the doctor pinching those bills. Because he made a show of the subtraction, wanting me to see who had the power.
Fast-paced, psychologically subtle and sometimes disturbing, The Lost and the Blind is a gripping novel. It is both empathetic and unsentimental: generous in its conception, and potent in its art.