In the summer before Cullen’s senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. But as absurd as the town’s carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.
While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are woven ever closer together and brought face to face in a surprising climax.
Quirky and laugh-out-loud funny, Where Things Come Back carries many echoes of the beloved classic, Catcher in the Rye. However, the plot is entirely original and the characters are much more likable and relevant.
Whaley deftly walks readers through every possible emotion — including the absence of emotion– as Cullen and his family try to process his younger brother’s inexplicable disappearance. As each member of the family is alternately strong and broken, we see Cullen bumbing through thanks in part to the diversion created by an alleged siting of a thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker.
It’s name, the Lazarus Woodpecker, is significant in that it denotes second chances and as the title also indicates, things coming back despite impossible odds. This forces Cullen to wonder whether the bird has really come back, and if so, will Gabriel come back, too? If the bird is extinct, does that mean Gabriel doesn’t stand a chance, either?
Despite the heavy subject matter, most of Things is refreshingly funny and perfectly captures the “I love you, man!” between brothers and best friends. Add in some truly hilarious, yet disturbing, daydreams involving zombies and dying on the floor of a Pizza Hut, and you’ve got a guy-friendly romp through small-town hell and back.