Sometimes in the dark a book will speak to you. The words stop crawling across the page and become music. His voices whisper in your ear.
Read at night, at the end of a too long day, and the characters will enter and leave the chambers of memory, letting the scent of cigarette smoke and faded perfume hang out. With the new novel by Simon Van Booy, The night has come with many stars, open in front of me, I know the smell of summer afternoons and the pattern of paint splashed on a workman’s boots. I can hear the bugs in the dark and feel the light coming out of a house at the end of a long dirt road. Find a book that speaks a language you know and you can drown in it without even realizing it.
I have been a fan of Van Booy’s work for a long time. Her short stories read like shredded glass in beautiful boxes. Night is not much different. A novel, yes, and maybe his best – the best of all his work that I have read, for sure, and better, by far, than anything that I have read that has not been written. by him. But if his news is pieces of glass, each distinct and different, Night is a stained glass window, broken. It’s a series of vignettes – of moments taken whole and raw from the life of a Kentucky family, generations in depth – not put together but organized. Each exposed. Each its own and complete, but part of a greater whole.
In 1933, Carol’s dad, Clay, bet her in a game of poker and lost.
In 1986, Carol’s grandson Samuel got a nail in the eye while having fun with his best friend Eddie during a shopping class.
These two points – fixed in the story, fixed on the page – are the moments at which everything else hangs. A bad bet. A stupid accident. The first is the evil done by evil men. The second, an error. Together, they change the distant course of lives and shape generations. Van Booy says, See what can happen. He says, These monumental little things.
Clay is a mean man – drunk, violent, a widower without a shred of goodness in him. But a bet is a bet and he abandons his only child to Travis Curt, sending Carol, 13, into Travis’ truck with just a small green suitcase and the doll her mother made for her when her mother was still alive. . She has to work for him as a servant – cooking and cleaning. Travis rapes her and Carol gets pregnant and runs away.
Samuel is a good boy. Eddie is doing his best. The nail thing? It was a misfortune. The kind of thing that can happen to any child, at any time. They are boys, Samuel and Eddie. They love each other fiercely. For a moment, it looks like everything is fine.
But it’s not. Not for Carole. Not for Samuel. Certainly not for Eddie and not for many or most of those who come and go for 70 years. And through it all, Van Booy says, Look what can happen. The way no one escapes their past.
But Carol is growing and Samuel is growing. Carol finds love, friendship, she creates a home for her children – something she never had herself – and watches them grow up and start their own families. Samuel has a crooked eye and a taste for cards and alcohol that will haunt him throughout his youth until he finally pulls himself out of the past that he seems cursed to repeat. He meets a waitress named Heather and starts a family of his own. And Van Booy says, Look what can happen. These beautiful things that heal.
Because Night is a book about generations – about fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. It is about crossroads and choices, the poisoned well of memory, the recurrence of objects and places, how the curses of the past and luck and chance come together to make a mosaic of such sadness and ‘such a beauty.
It is a moving book, a magnificent book. A story told in the native language and to the rhythm of paint factory workers, restaurant servants and waitresses, the guys who work 20 years on the line at the Ford factory and those who walk out dazed into the light after 10 years in prison.
It is a language that Van Booy understands. An ordinary world that he sketches with a clarity and a softness bordering on magic. In Night, Van Booy rediscovers the weakness, grace and beauty of shared lives fully lived.
And by telling their stories, he makes each of those lives huge to see.
Jason Sheehan knows things about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently a food critic at Philadelphia cream magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales of the Radiation Age is his latest book.