Because much of the story is told from Cullen Witter's perspective, everything is rather bleak. Cullen tells the story like it is through his eyes… but his eyes are a little bit tainted by pessimism. For example, when Cullen talks about their oh-so-bright future as adults, he has this to say:
People dreamed. People left. And they all came back. It was like Arkansas's version of a black hole; nothing could escape it. I lay there silent beside my brother, my best friend and his girlfriend wading in the water before me, and I knew we were all just in the prelude to disappointment after disappointment. (3.126)
Not the most cheerful of statements, huh? Through Cullen's eyes, the story takes on the dull, cloudy feeling of someone who is slowly watching hope seep away. He desperately wants to find his brother, but he can't help but get bogged down by all the bad things that are happening in his life.
Even when Cullen isn't narrating, though, the tone stays pretty bleak. It's not necessarily as cynical, but the darkness remains. The book centers around tragedy, though, so this is pitch perfect tonally speaking.
Once you strip away all the drama of a missing brother, a dead cousin, and a woodpecker's reemergence from extinction, Where Things Come Back is just a story about young people trying to grow up and find their paths in life. After all, Cullen Witter is seventeen-years-old, stuck in a small town, and trying to figure out what his mission is in life. And Cabot Searcy—as crazy as he seems—is trying to figure out the same for himself. He just happens to come to the conclusion that his life is meant to be lived according to signs and dictates from a higher power.
Once Gabriel disappears, a lot of the focus of Where Things Come Back is on the Witter family and how they cope with this gaping hole in their lives. Each character deals with their grief and anger in different ways, and they all find ways of being there for each other even when weighed down by their own grief.
We also get to see the family issues that crop up for Benton Sage, who can never make his father happy and proud no matter what he does. And Cabot Searcy gets disowned and disinherited when he starts to go down his path of religious mania—which sets him off by himself so that he's even more vulnerable to his flights of fancy.
Where Things Come Back is the title of the entire book and the title of the last chapter—you know, the one in which Gabriel reappears after his long disappearance. On the surface, it seems like maybe Gabriel's return is all the title's referring to, but if you look at little closer at the book, you'll see that people (and things) returning despite all odds isn't unique to Gabriel.
For example, the other exciting thing happening in Lily, Arkansas, during the summer of Gabriel's disappearance is the supposed reemergence of the extinct Lazarus woodpecker. Even though it turns out that the whole thing is a hoax engineered by a man desperate for attention, for a little bit of time, everyone in the town is reenergized by the fact that Lily might be a special place—the kind of place where an extinct bird would want to make its home.
We also see the storyline of Benton Sage, who goes on a missionary trip only to return home in disgrace, and that of Alma Ember, who goes away to college to escape Lily, but eventually winds up right back where she started. And on a broader level, the book ends with life returning to normal. It may not be exciting, but boring doesn't look so bad anymore, at least not to Cullen.
The ending of Where Things Come Back seems quite abrupt when you think about how the entire novel has led up to the moment that Gabriel comes back. But instead of getting, say, a chapter's worth of attention, this moment comes in the very last paragraph, which seems odd:
When one is sitting in his bedroom and, happening to glance out the window, sees his little brother walking slowly down the driveway, he immediately jumps up, knocks over a stack of magazines piled up beside him, and runs through the doorway and down the hall. (21.16)
Instead of letting the reader see the aftermath—how Mr. and Mrs. Witter react, how the return of his brother frees Cullen from worry, the first thing the brothers say to each other, and the like—the book ends right at the scene where Gabriel and Cullen are gazing at each other for the first time in months. The relief is palpable. And perhaps the whole point is that it doesn't matter what comes next. What really matters is that Gabriel is finally home. Things are back to the normal that Cullen has so often lamented throughout the book, but suddenly, now normal is just right.
Right away, our narrator—a.k.a. Cullen Witter—introduces us to the small town of Lily, Arkansas. Even though it's the place where Cullen was born and raised, he doesn't have very romantic notions about it. In fact, he describes it in downright depressing terms:
If you've never been to Lily, and I bet you haven't, then you need to know that it is located almost exactly halfway between Little Rock and Memphis. There are 3,947 people, according to the faded green sign on the side of the road as you drive into town, and most of these people are complete ass-hats who tried and subsequently failed to leave this place behind. One unique thing about Lily is that, for a small town in the middle of nowhere, it seems to be a very clean and well-kept sort of place. Lily is the kind of place you'd like to move to some short time before you die. If at any other time in your life you think you need the peace and quiet of Lily, Arkansas, then you should either see a therapist or stay there for a week and try to find anything half-entertaining to do. (1.22)
Yes, Lily is a "small town in the middle of nowhere," and consequently, the teenagers who are at the center of Where Things Come Back are itching to get away. The isolated quality of Lily also makes it a perfect setting for a storm of small town, personal dramas… which is exactly what happens when an extinct woodpecker is supposedly sighted, and Gabriel Witter disappears without a trace.
It's not that the language in Where Things Come Back is particularly difficult to read; after all, this is a book in which our narrator is your typical seventeen-year-old boy from a small town. He speaks plainly, curses, and talks about hot girls a lot. But the themes make it more challenging—we're dealing with heavy hitters like growing up, death, and even the existence (or non-existence) of a higher power. That's all deep stuff to take in, which means there's ample food for thought.
The writing style in Where Things Come Back is clear, concise, and descriptive, which is important when a book wants to capture the lives of so many characters. The writing is meant to introduce us to all the different characters and give us glimpses into their inner lives, backgrounds, and motivations. For example, this is what we get when we first meet Benton:
When Benton Sage found out that he would be going on a mission for his church that year, he was overwhelmed with excitement and panic. His stomach felt a sort of queasy rumble as he stood with his sisters and Reverend Hughes, and watched as the entire church circled around them, clasped hands, and began to pray. (2.1)
Right away, we get to know Benton—he is a nervous, excited, religious boy—and the kind of family background he comes from. And we know that we're about to hear the rest of his stories and adventures.
Hey, Shmoopers. Have you read John Barling's analysis over in the "Characters" section? Because Lazarus is a biblical reference, and if we do say so ourselves, we've done a pretty good job unpacking this component of the Lazarus bird as a symbol over there. So scoot on over, and then come right back here, okay? We'll wait.
Okay. You back? You ready? Let's go.
Here's the deal with this Lazarus bird and it's appearance in Lily:
There's this woodpecker that's been extinct for, like, sixty years. Only, this guy from Oregon or something was down here and he thinks he saw one. (3.78)
Pretty cool, right? That's the kind of thing towns throw annual festivals and fun runs for, luring in folks from out of town and putting Lily on the map. Alas, there's no such miracle in store for either the town of Lily or John Barling. The town dutifully waits for proof of the bird's arrival, but Barling can't produce anything other than grainy photos that could just be—and indeed, are—a normal woodpecker.
The bird, then, comes to represent failed hope. Barling will only be known for lies instead of an incredible discovery, and the town no longer expects any glory for itself. But insofar as this is true, the bird also represents a return to the status quo. Barling can return from whence he came, and nobody has to know about his failure, and life as usual resumes in Lily. With so many religious references—and here, we're thinking specifically of Cabot's fall (more on that in the "Characters" section)—this isn't so much a failure, as stasis winning out over change.
For the town of Lily, the only revelation is that there isn't any revelation coming their way at all.
The Book of Enoch is a book in the Ethiopian Bible that details what happens to the fallen angels after they come to earth and have children with mortal human beings:
From reading […] Cabot began to understand […] He read about the fall of the angels, God speaking to Noah, the Great Flood. He read from his Bible and the Ethiopian one as well. He went back and forth from one to another, Genesis to Enoch. Enoch to Genesis. (12.10)
The Book of Enoch doesn't just serve as an introduction for Cabot Searcy to the world of religion—it leads him to the world of religious fanaticism. For him, Enoch becomes a door through which he can tap into his burgeoning ideas about his life, where it's going, and how unfair this God (who throws out fallen angels) can be. Instead of taking ownership for his own life and decisions, he uses the Book of Enoch as a reference guide and an excuse for the things that go wrong:
This had not been the first time Cabot had blamed God for the loss of his child. In fact, he had begun to write down lists of all the world's evils, as if he were building up an army of words to fight some heavenly battle. (16.8)
The Book of Enoch becomes the guiding light in his life, and helps him to justify his decisions when he does terrible things… like kidnap a random teenager. So on the level of Cabot, it represents failure to take responsibility.
Cullen Witter has a healthy (or unhealthy, depending how you look at it) obsession with zombies and pretending that his everyday life involves the undead staggering around, wreaking havoc. His brain shifts into this mode on the regular because when Cullen thinks of everyone as zombies… well, it makes right and wrong much simpler to sort out. He tells us:
Here's the thing about zombies: They are supposed to be killed. You just have to do it. Humans are obligated to kill zombies, just as zombies have an obligation to seek out humans and feast on their flesh. (1.48)
Ah, the simplicity of the zombie-fighting lifestyle. You hardly have to make any decisions; you just kill off all the zombies. It's a very straightforward system—and as a system, we can see it as a symbol for religion. Also adding to the idea that zombies are a metaphor for religion? For Cullen, they’re tied up in sorting out right from wrong. For the umpteenth time in this book, then, faith is on the table.
Unlike every other instance of faith in the book, though, (for an example, check out Mrs. Witter's or Benton Sage's analysis in the "Characters" section) Cullen's never gets tested. This isn't a zombie book, so his belief in the simplicity of a world filled with the undead never has the chance to get proven or disproven. He might think he'd have purpose in such a world, but he really has no clue. The undead—like the Lazarus bird—never come to fruition; in this way, Cullen just might have a little more in common with Barling than he'd like to think.
Where Things Come Back is a special book because it employs not one, but two narrative techniques. Fancy, right?
When we get Cullen's side of the story, it's definitely told from his own perspective. We get his voice, insight into his thoughts and obsessions, and the emotions that no one else gets to see when his brother goes missing. On the outside, he may seem stoic and unfeeling, but because we're hearing the story from his perspective, we know that he is deeply affected by Gabriel's disappearance and just wants his brother back.
When the book switches to the Benton/Cabot/Alma storyline, though, it goes to the third person perspective, with limited omniscience. This means that we get the story as told from the perspective of a non-involved narrator, but we get to see the thoughts and inner workings of each character that said mystery narrator is focusing on.
For example, when the chapter is focused on Benton, we see his confusion over being a missionary and whether or not he's doing anything of worth for the Lord. And when Cabot is the focus, we get a glimpse into his mind as he becomes increasingly religious and fanatical.
When the narration styles combine, we get a pretty thorough understanding of a variety of characters, so when everything collides and the various plot threads finally come together, we see the big picture super clearly.
The scene of the story is set by Cullen's cousin Oslo's death in the small town of Lily, Arkansas. The Witter family is rocked by this development, and everyone is feeling quite glum about it. At the same time, we get to see the story of a young missionary named Benton Sage who goes off to Africa in order to save some souls for Jesus. Unfortunately, he doesn't find it as rewarding as he'd hoped to, though. How do these stories connect? We don't know yet—but the stage is definitely set.
Things start to heat up when Cullen's brother, Gabriel, goes missing, and an extinct woodpecker supposedly shows up in Lily. At the same time, Benton comes home from his mission and is totally shamed by his family; he decides to go off to college to get away from their razor sharp disappointment in him. His roommate at school is a rich kid named Cabot, and the surprisingly two hit off. With Gabriel gone and Benton alienated from his family, tension is on the rise.
To take his mind off of his brother's disappearance and to keep himself sane, Cullen starts dating his dream girl, Ada Taylor, even though he suspects that all of her attention is due to the fact that she feels sorry for him. Benton commits suicide and Cabot is left to deal with the aftermath, especially since Benton's family doesn't seem to care much—it's a major turning point for Cabot, and he starts to crack a bit. It's also starting to seem like the whole woodpecker thing might be a farce too; no one's actually seen the bird, despite the nature dude's insistence that it's there.
Things start falling into place in Lily, Arkansas. It comes out that the whole woodpecker thing is completely untrue—there is no bird. At the same time, Ada breaks it off with Cullen so that she can spend time with her ex-boyfriend. And Cullen starts to think that maybe Gabriel will never be found after all… that maybe his beloved brother is dead.
In Cabot's storyline, we see that he's married a girl named Alma Ember (who happens to be a girl that Cullen dates briefly, too), though their relationship ends badly and in divorce because he's kind of crazy. Cabot goes to Lily to chase Alma down, gets wind of the fact that she's been dating Cullen, and winds up kidnapping Gabriel, thinking that he's his brother. It might not be pretty, but things are definitely coming together at this point.
In the end, all the puzzle pieces fall into place. Gabriel manages to get away from crazy Cabot and comes home to his family. Lily is as he left it—Cullen is no longer dating Alma, and the woodpecker debacle has blown over—and Gabriel's return sets things right again. As the book ends, everything is as it should be.