A book that began on our true crime shelf at work before moving across many aisles to the biography section, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere is a memoir written so beautifully that for a while I had to put it down out of creative jealousy*. Poe Ballantine is a man that was as surprised as anyone by his affection for the town of Chadron, Nebraska, when he stumbles into it in 1994, and even more so when—after more shuffling around both the American continents—he returned to it with his Mexican-born wife, Cristina. Chadron has a population of some 5,800 people, many of whom turn up next to him at The Olde Main Street Inn to crack a beer and talk. And, in 2006, talk turns to one thing: Steven Haataja, the university professor who paid his rent one morning, went to work, made an appointment for 8:30am the next day, and vanished.
This is not entirely a true crime book; it belongs with memoirs. Poe is not defined by the crime, though he is moved by it. The book is as much about a middle-aged habitual wanderer attempting to discard unhappiness and become a good husband and father as it is a book about the missing Haataja. Poe’s son is a boy who loves fire exits and socialising with adults, but who may be autistic; Haataja, a professor of mathematics (incidentally, I first wrote “math professor”, but it just feels too strange to say that instead of “maths”) who is intellectually far above everyone else but happy to try and explain himself, could also be on the spectrum. It’s a spectrum Poe is unsure of, and one others use to explain his disappearance as suicide. When his body is discovered on a nearby property three months later, the closure everyone is waiting for does not arrive.
It is a credit to Ballantine’s writing that the stories of himself, his family, his friends—hell, even his son getting a haircut—are just as dynamic as those where bodies are found and half-drunk gangs storm out of a pub to search behind mysterious locked basement doors. Ballantine interviews more people for the book than he can name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean forensically precise details; this is in the book’s favour, and draws you into the local experience of the crime (if it is one), even if you occasionally find yourself a little biased about which town member you’d like to have seen shipped off to prison for committing murder.
Told in seventy fairly brief chapters, I wonder whether some of these moments were originally destined to be essays (Ballantine is a renowned and rightly adored essayist and novelist), as there are moments of repetition that threw me out: the constant reference to the crescent-moon C on Chadron’s water tower (I started to think the key to the mystery would be found there), the early frequent referrals to his wife using her background and looks and immigrant status instead of just calling her Cristina, in case we had forgotten about what had brought her to Nebraska and what she was going through to naturalise, even though we had been following her story as closely as Poe’s own. Nevertheless, this is the kind of book that reminds me of what nonfiction can do in the big rough hands of someone who can write of heavy moments with weightless beauty.
* In its place I picked up Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, which reminded me that I need not be good at everything in the world—I would never have the discipline required to leave the planet, it turns out, though I do have the lack of height to fit in the Soyuz—and gave me the required break to get back into Love & Terror. Incidentally, Hadfield’s book is ridiculously interesting, and he is a compelling and straightforward writer and a determined, entertaining and often funny man. When he was still in orbit and posting on Twitter every day, I went outside one clear evening and watched the International Space Station trace a path over the night sky. Sometimes, humanity is incredible.