Book: The Night Country
Author: Stewart O’Nan
Type of Book: Literary fiction, fiction, novel, ghost story
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s a wholly modern ghost story and part of the selection of books that I reread every few years or so. I do my best to read this book at least every other Halloween.
Availability: The edition I own is the 2004 Bloomsbury edition, which isn’t easily obtained, but the novel itself is still in print and you can get a copy here:
Comments: Stewart O’Nan is a pretty mainstream author and I doubt he’ll come up too often on this site in the future, but I couldn’t let another Halloween go by without discussing The Night Country. O’Nan is not a particularly odd writer and his stories can be remarkably prosaic but he is a master of characterization and his characters never fail to appeal to me in a very direct way. Mr OTC keeps me in middle class splendor, but I have some very working class roots (as does Mr OTC, for that matter). O’Nan captures perfectly the life of the man who clocks in and works an hourly wage. He depicts relationships in a tender manner that lacks sentimentality. His novel Last Night at the Lobster was a revelation to me – I discussed it on my old and now defunct site, I Read Everything, and that book alone cements O’Nan as one of my favorite mainstream writers.
But it was a bonus read because The Night Country was already in my to-be-reread-until-I-die rotation. I’m going to force myself to write as concise a discussion as possible because I don’t want to run the risk of spoiling this novel for anyone because I think just about everyone who reads here will like this book, and I hope you all read it after this review. That’s going to be hard because this book causes me to want to go on at length and explore every line. Let’s see how succinct I can be while honoring my desire to rave.
Here’s a quick synopsis: A year prior on Halloween, a car with five teenagers caught the attention of a patrol officer and tried to outrun him. The officer gave chase and the car crashed, killing three of the teenagers inside, gravely injuring one, while one walked away with few injuries. Marco, Danielle and Toe (real name Christopher) died. Marco is narrating this book while Danielle and Toe serve as a sort of third-person Greek chorus, chiming in with opinions and dark humor when they feel the need. Kyle suffered brain damage that rendered him child-like, and his mother is trying to hold on to hope now that she has a son who will be mentally a grade-school boy the rest of his life. Tim, who sustained no harm in the wreck, is groping through as he grimly plans to recreate that terrible night as best he can this Halloween. Brooks, the cop who gave chase in dangerous conditions, has lost everything – the esteem of his fellow officers, his wife left him and he is being forced out of his home because he can no longer afford it. Brooks senses that Tim is not going to let the first anniversary of the accident pass without some dark action but has become so uneven at performing his job that the reader has no idea how (and if) he can help Tim come out the other side of Halloween.
This book is a traditional ghost story, in a way, in that the dead come back to comment on the living, but this is a ghost story full of meta. The ghosts know they are ghosts and at times find the whole thing very tiresome but they have no choice in the matter – when the living invoke their memory, they are summoned and they cannot refuse. The three dead teenagers find themselves being pulled all over town the Halloween the year after their death and sometimes it’s miserable and sad, but sometimes the teens snark on the nature of being a ghost, invoking Dickens’ Marley, moaning and rattling metaphorical chains. But the teenagers know the fallout their deaths have caused Tim and Brooks. They also know how their deaths affect Kyle’s mother because she’s been faced with a death of her own – the black-jean-and-leather-jacket-wearing son she raised, the rebellious boy who listened to death metal, is now a shuffling, clumsy teenager who needs supervision constantly. He can’t even tie shoelaces anymore and must use velcro sneakers. He has a part time job at a supermarket that he maintains because he and Tim work together and Tim supervises him closely. But Kyle also must ride the special education bus, is gaining weight at a rapid clip and it can be said the old version of him died in that car Halloween a year ago. But his mother knows three families lost their child and feels that she must feel grateful because her child lived, even though she knows, really, that he died, too.
Tim especially feels disembodied in his life. Danielle was his girlfriend and because she wanted to sit in his lap that night the two of them moved to the backseat. Had he remained in the front seat, he would have died. Instead Danielle was thrown from the car and Tim doesn’t have a single visible scar remaining of that night. But his psychic scars tell him in no uncertain terms that he and Kyle should have died that night and is on a mission to set right that cosmic oversight. He’s going through the motions and no one but Brooks seems to understand that Tim is not okay, that he is not handling all of this well, that he needs far more from his parents than they realize, but Brooks has issues of his own. His entire life has fallen apart because he blames himself for what happened that night and so do many others.