Danny Ahearn, "the artist's boy," hangs around the Fun O'Rama Park courting Linda, whose father owns the Penny Arcade. In May, 1969, the summer season kicks into high gear, but the years of love will dramatically end in 1973 when Danny "goes down" for Linda's murder. Paroled and now living in Port City, Danny wonders on the whereabouts of his three-year-old daughter, Susan, adopted by her grandmother, Lois Dube, after final moments of Linda's suffering.
Like Dubus's most famous novel, House of Sand and Fog, Gone So Long proves that there are no heroes, only flawed people struggling to recover from devastating changes. Harvesting the terror and grandeur of classical tragedy and contemporary American life, Dubus presents his tale through the viewpoint of Danny, Susan and Lois. All three represent the slow, inexorable escalation of hasty decisions. Eighty-year-old Lois owns an antique shop in Arcadia, Florida. Her husband, Don, has long gone, and she's largely content with the company of Marianne, her loyal assistant who tries to assuage Lois's nagging bitterness at the loss of her beloved Linda. Even now, 40 years later, Lois sees Danny everywhere.
Perhaps Lois can do for Susan what she was not able to do for Linda. The first step is inviting her granddaughter to stay "because it's her home as well." Seeing 43-year-old Susan is "never having seen Linda at that age." Susan, meanwhile, suffers in isolation. She loves her husband, Bobby, but she's struggling to her a handle on her new novel, written from the point of view of a Mexican girl living in a tenement in Culiacan.
Danny hugs to distant memories first formed under the wooden bleachers in the Fun O'Rama Park. Stuck in limbo, Danny recalls the letter that he's kept for years--"short and as clear as a bullet." Though he thinks of himself as a practical man, Danny is motivated much more by the need to reconnect with Susan. Clinging to the trappings of his former life, Danny composes a letter to Susan, telling her Linda was the most beautiful woman on the strip: "You have her beauty, that's the thing; she was a looker and I was too weak to allow that."
Articulating the wishes and dreams of Lois, Susan and Danny, Dubus encapsulates his characters in white heat that leaves them cratering towards each other in synchronistic bursts of anger. Danny is felled by illness; Susan is faced with a decision on reconnecting with her father. In her anger, Lois makes an impulsive choice, one that reverberates throughout Susan's existence. Stranded on "some ice floe," Lois is haunted by the "miniature" Linda who once called her "Noni" and brought her the promise of comfort when there really was none to be had.
Wanting to see his daughter drives Danny's road trip South. Once-buried memories come back to Susan, like "Lois's magisterial wave of the hand." In Gainesville, Susan walks through her life, the orphan once raised by her sometimes-cruel grandmother. Susan's story is as tragic as a fairy tale, a girl who lost her mother and is wronged by fate. Danny's hope burns, the "razored heat flashing through his chest and face." As he embarks on his road trip, he wants to look presentable--"no more staring at or even talking to strangers." Dubus explores how the past is perhaps just layers inside of us, like "an old song on the radio," Dubus unfurls a final, broken reckoning between Susan, Lois and Danny. Lois is appalled that her granddaughter wants to see the man who had made Lois "the vigilante, the frightened woman she's become," the man who took everything and who would take Susan, too.
Dubus paints with perfect clarity an alarming moment, a mistake when all three parties are just too frightened or too weak to make things right again. Edging the reader to the cliff, Dubus weaves a hypnotic spell in this richly detailed story of an elderly woman carrying the ghost of her dead daughter, the father who regrets his crime, and the disenchanted granddaughter desperate for forgiveness but not quite knowing why.