The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan

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.

Marco, Danielle and Toe long for the day when they are no longer remembered, when people no longer go to the tree Toe wrapped the car around that night and leave notes and teddy bears that get soaked in the rain.

Even if you were from around here you’d be used to it, maybe even annoyed at the cards and flowers, the shameless sentimentality of teenagers. Don’t worry, they’ll graduate and move away, and then our younger brothers and sisters, off to college and jobs and marriage, leaving our parents, a mother who dedicates herself to a larger cause, a father who turns inward and strange. One wraps herself in bitterness, another discovers religion. Do they change into gaudy polyester snowbirds or let the house fall down around them? Whatever. Everyone forgets — you have to, isn’t that true? Isn’t that proof that time is merciful and not the opposite.

Don’t answer. You’ll have time to think about it later — an entire night, an eternity. Halloween comes once a year.

Marco is speaking to Tim above, but you can get a taste of the tongue-in-cheek nature of this trio of ghosts when he goes on to say:

Didn’t I tell you? There’s a reason we call on you, why this night comes again and again and again, bad dream within a dream. You think it’s torture but you know it’s justice. You know the reason. You’re the lucky one, remember? You live.

Marco knows Tim isn’t lucky, and so does Danielle. Toe less so because he’s sort of a neanderthal-type, and was driving like a lunatic that night, as the others like to remind him. They visit Tim so much because his tortured feelings about being alive summon them. Danielle still loves him but there is nothing she would like better than for Tim to accept and embrace his status as a living being.

Danielle and Marco also have no ill will toward Brooks. Again, this is Marco speaking, and in this there’s an example of the Greek chorus, which Marco interrupts his own story to join from time to time.

This is your big hero. Because there has to be a hero, right, someone to root for? Sorry, he’s all we got, him and Tim, and Tim can’t be the hero, can he? (Toe thinks what Tim is going to do is heroic, or at least supercool, but Toe, of course, is a psycho. Danielle thinks it’s stupid, that’s all she’ll say; she’s still mad at him. Me – hi, I’m Marco – I’m in the middle. I’m the quiet one. You’ll see, nobody listens to me.) I don’t even know if we’re going to try to do Kyle, he’s so messed up. You’ll see, he’s a good guy, Brooksie, a little whacked after everything but who isn’t. It’s not a perfect world. It’s not a perfect story, just something random that happens to us, bad luck. Of course you can’t tell that to Brooks. He’s the kind of guy who needs reasons for everything, who needs everything to make sense.

Oh god, O’Nan sets everything up so neatly. So perfectly. We do need to root for Brooks. He’s a force for life. He doesn’t want to reenact that night, he wants Kyle and Tim to go on living, he wants his old life back, he wants everything to be normal even though it can’t be. The town itself, a New England town called Avon, is being gentrified and he sees continual change and chaos and is tired. But we do root for him, even as we watch him falling down. We want him to stop Tim and echoing Brooks’ own desire for everything to make sense, we want Brooks to get his wife back, his house taken off the market, his status in the community restored. We read this book and we are like Brooks, hoping for a tidy, happy ending for him because we get to see that he is indeed a good guy.

Interestingly I felt some of what Brooks experiences when he looks at his town and realizes nothing seems the same to him anymore, that it is not the town he lived in when he was a kid. In this novel Blockbuster stores are still in most strip malls. Mobil gas stations are thick on the ground. Just thirteen years old, many things in this novel no longer exist. And what is ubiquitous now was foreign in the book. Kyle’s mom has to call the grocery store main line when she needs to reach her son when he is at work – no one carries cell phones in this book. Time seems to be accelerating, and when I wrote this sentence, I accidentally wrote “Tim is accelerating” and I wonder if O’Nan named his protagonist Tim on purpose because this is a novel about death, which is always a story about time, isn’t it?

There are moments of dark and black humor in this. Danielle, the normal dead girl with the psycho and the storyteller, often bristles against them, and takes issue with what Marco tells the readers. For example, she really doesn’t want Marco to reveal grisly details about the wreck. To set the scene, Brooks has training in accident reconstruction and is taking measurements immediately after the wreck.

Brooks paid out his measuring tape, found how far it was from the car, how far from Danielle, jotting the numbers down on his clipboard, another clue. In his mind he was diagramming triangles, connecting the dots, turning us into a puzzle, something he could do on his computer that weekend. When he was sure he’d gotten his documentation, he knelt down with a glassine envelope and a pair of tweezers and gently uncovered the earring. It was still attached.

(I don’t believe you, Marco. You are such an asshole.)

High school English lit teachers will rejoice at the idea that Toe remembers so much from Steinbeck, and it’s sort of cruel that he’s saying this about his old friend Kyle, left brain damaged from the wreck, but you get the sense that in real life these friends gave and took all kinds of shit from each other. To set scene, Brooks is checking in on Tim and Kyle. They’re out in the parking lot at the supermarket, their part time job, collecting carts before closing. Brooks has a feeling, a seasoned police officer’s sense that Tim is not all right. He pulls up in his squad car to talk to them.

“Say, Kyle. Tim.”

“Hello, Officer Brooks,” Kyle says in his doughy, dumb-bear voice. (Duh, Toe says, what about the rabbits, George?

Why do you have to be so mean, Danielle asks.

I’m dead, Toe says. I don’t have to be nice.)

Toe really is an asshole. The following happens when Brooks is in his squad car, surrounded by the spirits of the dead teenagers because in the days leading up to the year anniversary of the crash these kids are all he thinks of. Danielle does what she can to distract him from his grief (Danielle is a lovely character – she’s anxious, angry, lonely and kind and I love her so much) but she’s just a dead girl and there’s little she can do.

A familiar feeling of helplessness comes over Brooks, his breath pressed out of his chest, caught in his throat, a charged, ticklish heat as if he’s about to sneeze, his sinuses pinched. He rubs his face with both hands, and suddenly, from out of nowhere – and we’re always called in to watch, as if this apology is for us – he’s in tears. A handful, quickly brush away, rubbed into his cheeks. He catches his breath again, embarrassed at his capacity for self-pity, blows his nose and tucks the kleenex into the ashtray.

“Christ,” he says, the word eaten by silence.

No one blames you, Melissa used to say.

No one has to, Brooks thinks.

(What about us? Toe says. We do.)

One aspect of this novel that worked so well was how O’Nan’s ghosts had very little use for any of the maudlin attitudes on the anniversary of their deaths. They had no choice in where they went, though they could sometimes choose where they went when multiple people thought of them with sadness or misery. They’re marionettes attached to strings tied to the living.

(We won’t have Brooks home and in bed before Kyle’s mom’s alarm goes off. As soon as people start to wake up and remember what day it is, we’ll be flying around town, making special guest appearances at breakfast tables, showering with people we barely know. How many parents of our classmates are going to pass the tree on their way to work and make us pose there (say antifreeze!)? We’ll be in and out of school all day, swooping into biology and woodshop, smoking in the trees at the edge of the soccer field, hanging out behind Mrs. M.’s gasmart. And then there will be the wreaths and flowers, the cards picked out at the CVS by the misguided and signed, as if we can read them (Toe does, mocking the ready-made sentiments meant for our parents: May memories keep your loved one near. Walter and Liz Preston). This is the easy part, just following around the hardcore. In an hour we’re everyone’s lost children, everyone’s best friends.

For now though, Brooks has us here in custody. We’re his prisoners as much as he’s ours. All we can do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

Didn’t I tell you this was going to be fun?

So I lied. Go ahead and kill me.)

And they do see Brooks off to sleep, after watching him toss and turn.

Finally Danielle bends to him, touches his forehead like a mother, and he sleeps. We stand around him like doctors, like angels, waiting for the dreams to begin, the sirens and screaming tires, the night country flying in his headlights as we chase him, racing to the tree. It might seem like revenge except it’s not ours. Brooks is easy to haunt. We don’t have to bring him nightmares. He has his own.

Guilt is the key emotion in this story – not sorrow, but the exquisite misery of guilt. Here’s Kyle’s mother, who sleeps in cat naps because she has to be awake when he gets off his late night grocery shift to put him to bed, awake early in the morning to help him get ready for school, ready for him when he gets home from school, readying him for his job, making his sandwich and carrot slices (that more often than not Tim trashes and buys his friend cheeseburgers and fries – I don’t want to speak about their relationship too much because it is very touching and full of patience I don’t have, and, of course, mapped by guilt). She’s constantly reminding herself that she should be happy, how lucky she is.

Outside the middle school kids are filtering down to the bus stop on the corner, hunched under the weight of their backpacks. She remembers Kyle at that age and envies their parents. She envies everyone, that’s part of the problem; by some trick of fate her life is no longer hers, though she’s still the same person, mostly. Tomorrow she could wake up on the cape with another husband, different kids, a different situation, her life restored to her. Not perfect, that’s not what she wants, just something liveable. And then is disgusted with herself for what that idea implies. Kyle is alive; she needs to be grateful, especially today.

Her son will be a child forever, needing to be reminded to brush his teeth, needing supervision until the day he dies, which will comes long after her own death. Her entire life was rearranged in a moment and she and Tim carry the largest parts of the load where Kyle is concerned, yet she feels guilty for hating the abrupt end of her dreams. Of retiring. Of moving to the coast. Of being her own person with her own life.

So strong is her longing for the son she lost in the accident that she conjures the spirit of her now dead but still living son. He comes to visit her when she volunteers at the library, alongside his legitimately dead friends but separate from them for he is a different kind of dead.

(And while she’s relieved she isn’t thinking of us, we’re still here, on reserve. We stalk her from a distance by the Fiction, peeking through holes in the shelves, playing hide-and-seek like we used to, Toe flirting with Danielle, and then Danielle turns a corner and suddenly pulls up, and there standing right in front of her, a good foot taller, is Kyle.

Toe’s like a hero. He grabs Danielle and runs the other way, plowing through an older woman who looks up from her book, then keeps reading.

It’s the same Kyle, with his T-shirt, his wallet on a chain. He doesn’t see us, he just follows his mom up and down the rows, looking through the books at her the same way we were. We don’t know what to think of him showing up.

He follows her around the curved circulation desk and through the knee-high gate into the back. Toe looks to me, and Danielle; I see they’re done holding hands. I shrug – how would I know what’s going on? There’s nothing we can do but tag after him.)

So deeply is she missing the son she lost the spirit of that dead but living boy comes to stalk her. Kyle was a wanna-be hoodlum and hated his mother’s Martha Stewart pretensions. But while he’s there stalking his mother, he also takes umbrage when a library patron is rude to his mother and takes minor, petty revenge on the woman. Nothing is cut and dried. Maternal love is eternal but it can be tainted by extreme duty and sons may resent their mothers but no one else should be rude to them.

And here we are. I have over three thousand words already and I am going to force myself to end this discussion because I could go one for thousands more. I haven’t spoken much about Danielle and Tim. I haven’t told you about Kyle and Tim after the wreck. I haven’t told you about Toe’s asshole friends and the stupid things they do to try to avenge his death. I haven’t told you about Kyle’s mom and dad’s relationship. I haven’t told you what Tim ends up doing and how it affects Brooks. There is a depth of words I have not plumbed and I think that’s for the best because I don’t want to ruin the book even as I want to talk about it.

This is a wonderful modern ghost story, but one that is less modern by the day because time keeps moving forward and we are all one day closer to the grave each day we live. This novel is not a scary ghost story – the fear comes from wondering if your grief is tethering someone to you, preventing them from going on, forcing them to relive the worst thing that happened to them alongside you as you mourn. The fear comes from knowing you’re going to die and possibly end up tethered yourself. You’ll wonder if our maudlin ways serve anything but our own misplaced guilt, and you’ll wonder further if there is anything anyone can even do about  it because being human means being very frail.

So get a copy and read it. Let me know if it means as much to you as it does to me.

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