When You Don’t See Me
by Timothy James Beck
Kensington Books. 304 pages, $15.
NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD Nick Dunhill felt that his parents never noticed him, but maybe that was just as well. Hiding in plain sight is easy to do when your family would rather not acknowledge your existence. In Timothy James Beck’s new novel, When You Don’t See Me, Nick discovers that his invisibility can be both a curse and a blessing.
Like many newly independent young people, Nick is going through a period of self-examination. He always knew he wasn’t like his fraternal twin brother Chuck or their older brother Tony. Tony and Chuck were strapping, roughhousing boys with a love of sports and a need for their father’s approval. Nick was a slightly built, individualistic, talented boy who hated physical challenges and sports of all kinds, and he knew it was easier to slip through the cracks in his family than to curry favor that he was never going to get. He often thought—no, he knew—that his being gay was the reason for his family’s indifference.
Because of the problems he now faces at home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Nick begs his parents to let him move to New York City to live with his Uncle Blaine and Blaine’s partner Daniel. Uncle Blaine understood what it was like to come from small-town America, where bullies loved nothing better than to pound on people who were different. So Nick decided he’d like to go to high school in the Big Apple, which is how he ended up in New York—and how he ended up living in a cramped, two-room glorified closet with three other people.
But life in New York wasn’t all bad. Nick had friends—close friends—including Roberto, a former classmate and now roommate, and Adalla and her daughter Isleta, a toddler on whom Nick doted. And he had his extended family: Uncles Blaine and Daniel; Gavin, who worked for Blaine; Gwendy, who lived in the same building; and Emily, Nick’s baby cousin, born to Blaine and his best friend Gretchen, who was killed on September 11, 2001. After being unemployed for a few weeks, Nick had a great new job that he loved and co-workers who were willing to shape his innate creativity. Slowly, as others acknowledged his talents, his heart, and his sense of humor, Nick began to see the outlines of a life he could enjoy.
But something in the back of his mind bothered him. True, he had a surrogate family, but Nick missed his own family. Although he didn’t want their help and he didn’t need their money, he wanted love, or at least acceptance, from his parents and his brothers. Why couldn’t they see that? But what Nick couldn’t see was his family’s support despite his invisibility.
When You Don’t See Me is one of those surprising little novels that lacks drama and violence but instead meanders, in a delightful way, on a small one-person journey that ends up nowhere in particular but will make you smile all the same. Beck gives Nick a great personality with just the right mix of a wry sense of humor, optimistic uncertainty, youthful determination, and a good heart to hold his character together. The rest of the cast of characters is equally interesting and for the most part likeable, which makes this novel a page-turning week’s worth of entertainment.
Terri Schlichenmeyer is a syndicated columnist based in Wisconsin.