Joe Meno’s Star Witness is an enchanting mystery that meanders through the lives of a motley cast of eccentrics trapped in their rural lives.
Meno, author of novels like Office Girl and Marvel and A Wonder, launched the episodic serial novella through Electric Literature. Serialized fiction published by periodicals is not a new format, but this modern iteration feels innovative and unexpected, and Electric Literature should be lauded for experimenting. Meno does the genre proud with an alluring tale about a missing girl and the young woman who is determined to find her. Star Witness exploits the limitations of the serial form by using the episodic structure and our natural curiosity to draw us into Meno’s world.
When Shelley George, a local waitress, learns that a young girl she once babysat, Jaime Fay, has disappeared, she embarks on a mission to find Jaime. It soon becomes obvious Shelley is on her own emotional journey as she struggles with her relationship to the place she lives. On her journey she interacts with a menagerie of locals who help and hinder her quest.
Star Witness draws strength from its brevity. Each distinct episode must carve out its own story and impact the greater narrative at the same time. Meno manages to do this by introducing an expansive cast of eccentrics. We only get a tidbit of each person Shelley encounters; their unspoken complexities entice us and propel the story onward. Each person is a small mystery we want to solve.
Consider Norris Ambley, a man who walks around town wearing Donald Duck and He-man Halloween masks. “Norris usually had the same peaceful, vacant kind of expression. But tonight it seemed he had been crying,” Shelley observes. We are tempted with this glimpse of Norris, but during the short time we spend with him, are never privy to his inner workings or longer backstory. Who is he? What does he do? How does he survive? Meno baits our imagination and allows us to fill in the details to draw us deeper into this world. These characters also give the novella a well-developed sense of place, like the sheriff’s deputy who worries about getting chewed out by the Sheriff for losing his keys, and Norris directing Shelley to the local meth dealing family.
Star Witness is funny, too. There’s a swamp monster who turns out to be a boy in a rubber suit. We empathize with his situation—so desperate for money he’ll stand in a lake all afternoon to pose for photographs with tourists who never materialize. Meno is skilled at building sympathy for this rural community despite their ordinariness.
As the novella opens, Shelley laments:
“Everything—the empty roads and lonely-looking houses set far back from the road, the dilapidated buildings spaced several hundred yards apart—seemed to lack mystery.”
It’s an ironic portent, but also speaks to the characters’ sense of self. They don’t see themselves as living compelling lives. They are not hoping to change the world. They are maybe not even the protagonists of their own lives. They are poor and working-class people in an otherwise out-of-the-way town enduring ordinary lives.
The relationship between Shelley and this place is at the heart of Star Witness. Like the reader, she is out of place here. She never feels at home: “Wherever I go, I always end up wanting to be somewhere else.” We root for Shelley to find and accept her place in the community.
The narrative quickens as it nears a conclusion. Each time Shelley encounters a new character, there is greater urgency than the last, and the final sections pass rapidly. The resolution of the mystery is a satisfying relief.
With Star Witness, Meno has crafted a tight mystery in a world where the ordinary creates intrigue. He converts the familiar into the amusing and maximizes the structure of a serialized narrative. Ultimately we, the readers, are the star witness, getting a unique look into the lives of overlooked people.
Ian MacAllen is the Rumpus Deputy Editor and founder of English Kills Review an online literary magazine focused on books, authors, and New York City. His writing has appeared in Joyland Magazine, The Billfold, Electric Cereal, Thought Catalog, and io9. He holds a Master’s Degree in English from Rutgers University and lives in Brooklyn. He tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.
Illustrations Copyright © 2017 by Alix Pentecost Farren.