In Johnson's first novel, it's the summer of 1972, and Daniel Westcott, 68, has been named king of the pirates, to be crowned at the annual Gasparilla Queen's Party. But Westcott, who has never missed a Queen's Party, fails to attend his own coronation, and his enigmatic absence prompts an uneasy homecoming of his grandchildren, Becca, 21, an aspiring Broadway musical actress, and her estranged brother, Kurt. Their addled mother, Julia, lives on the family estate and is considered by most to be "more than a little 'touched' in the head." The early '70s setting, with references to the Vietnam War protests and the Kent State shootings, reflects the inner turmoil of the Westcott family. As the search for the patriarch unfolds, the mystery deepens. Can it be related to an old financial scandal? Were he and his boat seized by smugglers? Was it a hallucination or did Julia see her mother, Natalie, shoot her father? "Trust me: he's alive," a friend consoles Becca. "But what he's up to now has the whole town guessing." And the reader, too. But, as Becca predicts at one point: "The truth will be known." Johnson writes with a vivid sense of place ("The breeze off the bay was sweet, heavy with the scent of confederate jasmine") and offers a Wolfe-ian (as in Tom, but without the stylistic brio) portraiture of '70s-era Tampa Bay high society. "Much of the town's old wealth was dwindling," she writes of the Westcotts' once-grand estate. "Those in that circumstance took pride in the quiet beauty of a home's chipped and weathered features. They went so far as to scoff at the nouveau riche with their freshly painted soffits and shutters." The family dysfunction compellingly plays like something out of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, like Written on the Wind, complete with hidden agendas, ghosts, revelatory family diaries, and deepest, darkest secrets. The author populates this forlorn family's saga with a breadth of memorable characters who occupy disparate rungs on Tampa Bay society's ladder, including Eula and Niobe, the family's longtime caretaker and her daughter, and Police Chief Feo Salazar, who knows a thing or two about Westcott's more unsavory predilections.
A gripping tale of a missing patriarch in 1970's Florida; an auspicious debut.